In this episode of WichitaLiberty.TV: Wichita sells a hotel, more subsidy for downtown, Kansas newspaper editorialists fall for a lobbyist’s tale, how Kansas can learn from Arizona schools, and government investment. View below, or click here to view at YouTube. Episode 131, broadcast October 30, 2016.
Instead of spending the proceeds of the Hyatt hotel sale, the city should honor those who paid for the hotel — the city’s taxpayers.
The City of Wichita has sold the Hyatt Regency Hotel for $20 million. Now, what should the city do with these funds? In a workshop this week, the city manager and council recognized that these funds should not be used for operating purposes. This is important. The Hyatt Hotel was paid for with long-term debt, which the city says has been retired. The proceeds from this sale should be used in a similar way: For long-term capital investment, not day-to-day operating expenses. But the council heard two proposals that are decidedly more like operating expenses rather than capital investment.
One proposal, presented by Public Works Director Alan King, is to spend $10 million on street repair over two years. Part of that expense is to purchase a new truck, which is a capital, not operating, expense. But King later revealed that the truck could be purchased out of the existing capital budget.
Street maintenance, however, is an operating expense.
A second proposal, from the Wichita Transit System, would use about $4 million to sustain and improve current bus service. It was presented to the council as a “bridge to a long term solution.”
This, too, is an operating expense.
As these proposals were presented in a workshop, no decision was made.
These two proposed uses of the $20 million Hyatt sales proceeds are contrary to the goal of not using the funds for operating purposes. If the city decides to use the sales proceeds in this way, a capital investment will have been sold in order to pay for day-to-day expenses.
Instead of spending on these two projects, the city should simply return the money to those who paid for the Hyatt in the first place. Those people are, of course, the taxpayers of Wichita. It would be difficult to give back the funds to individual taxpayers in proportion to the amount they supplied. So what the city should do is retire $20 million of the city’s long-term debt.
If not that, then the city should use the Hyatt proceeds to pay for another long-lived asset, perhaps the new downtown library. Either of these alternatives respects the principles of sound financial practice, and also respects the taxpayers.
The city will lend the developer of a project at 303 S. Broadway $620,000 to improve the building’s facade. The property must repay this amount through an assessment on its property tax. The benefit to the property is that the city is able to borrow money at a lower interest rate, and this reduces the cost of borrowing for the project.
The agenda packet for this item states: “The Office of Urban Development has reviewed the economic (“gap”) analysis of the project and determined a financial need for incentives based on the current market.” This stems from the city’s policy on facade improvement projects, which is that the project would not be feasible except for this loan.1
Upon inquiry to the city, I was told that the facade improvement program would increase the developer’s return on investment from 7.06 percent to 8.35 percent. This seemed a stretch; that a small savings on interest costs on a small portion of the project cost could have such a large effect on profitability.
I asked the city for supporting documents that hold the figures used to calculate these amounts, but the city believes the Kansas Open Records Act does not allow it to release the records. In the past, however, I have received this information on request.
So, we’ll have to trust the city on this matter. I’m not comfortable with that. This is another example of the city conducting business within a cloud of secrecy.
Here’s the real money
The cost savings on borrowing $620,000 is just a small portion of subsidy this project will receive. Through tax credits, this project likely will receive over two million dollars in a form equivalent to cash.
The property was listed on the Register of Historic Kansas Places in August. This entitles the project to a tax credit of 25 percent of qualified expenses.2 With a project cost of $5,000,000, according to city documents, this tax credit could be worth $1,250,000.
From the National Park Service, a credit of 20 percent may be awarded.3 With a project cost of $5,000,000, according to city documents, this tax credit could be worth $1,000,000. It is not known at this time whether this project has qualified for this tax credit.
Together, the tax credits are worth potentially $2,250,000. Not all citizens may be aware of the mechanism of tax credits. In the case of the state of Kansas, the Department of Revenue will — figuratively — print a certificate that says the holder of this certificate may use it to pay $1,250,000 of state tax liability. It costs the state nothing to create this certificate. When the Department of Revenue receives the certificate instead of cash, the state gains nothing of economic value. The net economic effect is that the holder of the tax credit has been enriched by $1,250,000, and the state misses out on the same amount of revenue.4 Unless the state reduces its spending by the amount of the tax credit, the taxpayers have to make up the lost revenue.
This is not all. The project may apply for Industrial Revenue Bonds. This is a mechanism whereby a project may avoid paying property taxes and sales taxes.5 This property is located within a TIF district, so it is ineligible for property tax abatements. But, a sales tax exemption could be possible, if the developer applies.
That application is likely, as this developer did just that on another downtown Wichita building, also located in a TIF district, but eligible for sales tax exemption on purchases related to the redevelopment.6
Of note: This developer actively campaigned for the proposed 2014 Wichita city sales tax, offering free office space to the effort.7 Should he apply for a sales tax exemption on this property, this is another example of low-income families in Wichita paying sales tax on groceries, but well-off developers escaping paying that same tax.
The council meeting
At the council meeting, a citizen remarked how this project is good for the tax base. But, being in a TIF district, the incremental property taxes from this property will go to the TIF district, not the city, until the TIF debt is retired.
Council Member Janet Miller (district 6, north central Wichita) noted that the city is not contributing to the project, that the developer pays all the costs of the facade improvement loan. But of a direct contribution to the project, she said “Although I wouldn’t probably complain if that was a request.” I’d suggest that Miller read up on the economics of tax credits, and of a possible sales tax exemption. She might be surprised to learn how much cash this project is receiving.
Inside jokes or a public shaming: Either way, it isn’t good.
Those who watch meetings of the Wichita City Council may have become accustomed to Wichita Mayor Jeff Longwell and his unusual sense of humor. But an episode from the September 6, 2016 meeting of the council goes beyond bad and unfunny humor, presenting an unfavorable image of our city to anyone watching the meeting. The target of the mayor’s humor — or derision — is Wichita city manager Robert Layton. A video excerpt of the meeting is available here, or at the end of this article.
The mayor’s treatment of the city manager seems cruel. But maybe not. Perhaps there are inside jokes in play here, humor that an outside observer like myself does not understand and can’t appreciate. But that’s the problem. If, in fact, the mayor is joking with the manager, these are inside jokes. Therefore, outsiders won’t understand the humor. This includes most citizens of Wichita and outsiders observing the meetings of the Wichita City Council. I think I can speak for everyone when I say this: We aren’t impressed. It isn’t funny.
If the mayor isn’t joking, then what’s left is public cruelty, and that of a boss (the mayor) to those who work for him (the manager). Former Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer did this too, and to more than one city manager.
If you need help interpreting the mayor’s intent, consider this: The agenda for this meeting, for this item, held the notation “RECOMMENDED ACTION: Defer this item until October 4, 2016” for this item. There was no need for the mayor’s needling of the manager.
Either way — inside jokes or a public scolding — episodes like this are not good for the city’s image.
The Wichita City Council approves economic development incentives, but citizens should not be proud of the discussion and deliberation.
Today’s meeting of the Wichita City Council saw the council discuss and approve economic development incentives for a project in downtown Wichita.
The item contemplated economic development incentives for redevelopment of an empty building in downtown Wichita to become a Hilton Garden Inn Hotel. The incentives being considered were a Community Improvement District (CID), Industrial Revenue Bonds (IRB), a parking agreement, and a skywalk easement. The discussion by the council was useful for revealing two members who are opposed to some targeted economic development incentives, but it also showed a troubling lack of knowledge and consideration by others.
The hotel is requesting industrial revenue bonds. These bonds do not mean the city is lending any money. Instead, IRBs in Kansas are a mechanism to convey property tax abatements and sales tax exemptions.
The agenda packet for this item states: “[Hotel developer] WDH is not requesting abatement of property taxes in conjunction with the IRBs.”1 This is presented as a magnanimous gesture, as something the hotel developers (WDH) could have requested, but did not, presumably out of some sort of civic duty.
But: Property tax abatements may not be granted within the boundaries of a TIF district, which this hotel is located within.23 So the developers did not request something that they are not entitled to request. This is not news. Nonetheless, several council members were grateful.
As to property taxes, Wichita City Council Member James Clendenin (district 3, southeast and south Wichita) asked what would be the increase in value in the building, once finished. Later Wichita City Council Member Jeff Blubaugh (district 4, south and southwest Wichita) praised the property taxes that will be paid. He also mentioned the “nearly-empty parking garage.” When the city built this garage and accompanying retail space it was to be a showpiece, but has been suffering from blight and lack of tenants paying market rates for rent.4
Asking about tax abatements, Wichita City Council Member Pete Meitzner (district 2, east Wichita) asked “They didn’t apply for other …” His voice trailed off before finishing the question, but the “other” tax abatement that could be applied for is the property tax abatement. Except, the law does not allow for a property tax abatement for this project.
All these questions alluded to the increased property taxes the renovated building will pay. Except, being within a TIF district, property taxes may not be abated. So where will the hotel’s property taxes go?
First, the property tax generated by the present value of the property (the “base”) will be distributed as before. But the increment — which will be substantial — will go to the TIF district, not the city, county, and school district. Except: This is an unusual TIF district, in that an agreement between the city and county provides that only 70 percent of the incremental property taxes will go to the TIF district, with the remainder being distributed as usual. This was not mentioned during today’s discussion.
There was talk about a “gap.” Some economic development incentives require documenting of a “financing gap” that makes the project not economically feasible. But that is not required for the incentives considered for this hotel.
Regarding the sales tax exemption: City document do not state how much sales tax will be forgiven, so we’re left to speculate. Previous city documents5 indicate spending $3,000,000 on furniture and fixtures, which is taxable. Sales tax on this is $225,000.
The same city document mentioned spending of $6,250,000 on construction of the hotel, and of $1,000,000 for construction of retail space. Sales tax on this combined total is $543,750. Based on material from the Kansas Department of Revenue, these amounts would be due if not for the action of the city council.6
In total, the development of this hotel will escape paying $768,750 in sales tax. It should be noted that Kansas is one of the few states that charges sales tax on groceries at the same rate as other purchases, making Kansas food sales tax among the highest in the nation.7
Curiously, council members Clendenin and Williams, who represent low-income districts where families may be struggling to buy groceries — and the sales tax on them — did not object to this special sales tax treatment for a commercial developer.
No more cash?
In his remarks, the mayor talked about how we can continue with economic development “without handing cash to corporations.” But when a project is going to buy materials and services on which $768,750 in sales tax is normally due, and the city council takes action to extinguish that liability, well, that’s better than cash to the receiver.
Kudos to Wichita City Council Member Bryan Frye (district 5, west and northwest Wichita), who actually cited the United States Constitution in his statement from the bench. He said that the issues surrounding this project are a far cry from what our Founding Fathers envisioned as the role of government, saying “I struggle with using city resources to collect and distribute sales tax for the sole benefit of one commercial entity.” He offered a substitute motion which would have approved all the parts of the agreement except for the CID tax. His motion failed, with only he and Wichita Mayor Jeff Longwell voting in favor.
On the original motion, which was to approve all parts of the incentive agreement, Longwell and Frye voted in opposition, with everyone else voting in favor.
City of Wichita. Agenda packet for September 6, 2016. Available here. ↩
“General rule: Materials are taxable.” (p. 4) Also: “Taxable labor services in Kansas are the services of installing, applying, servicing, repairing, altering, or maintaining tangible personal property performed on real property projects in the general category of commercial remodel work.” (p. 8) Kansas Department of Revenue. Sales & Use Tax for Contractors, Subcontractors, and Repairmen. Available at www.ksrevenue.org/pdf/pub1525.pdf. ↩
But the city has a sales tax. It’s called a “franchise fee” or “franchise tax,” depending on which city documents you’re reading. Either way, it’s just like a sales tax applied to your utility bill: gas, electric, cable television, water, sewer, or telephone.
In 2015, Wichita collected $44.3 million in franchise taxes. By comparison, the city’s share of the county-wide one cent per dollar sales tax was $58.0 million.1 Another context: In 2014 the city estimated that a one cent per dollar city sales tax would generate $80 million per year.
For 2017 the city is budgeting for $48.4 million in franchise fees.2 For 2018, $49.8 million.
What is the purpose of franchise taxes? The Wichita city budget explains: “Franchise Fees — These revenues are based on agreements between the City and local utilities. Generally, these agreements are long term and result in payments to the City of 5% of utility revenues. All franchise fee revenues are credited to the General Fund.”
The Wichita city code amplifies:
Sec. 3.93.350. — Payment of taxes — Franchise fee not a tax.
The franchise fees required herein as part of any franchise shall be in addition to, not in lieu of, all taxes, charges, assessments, licenses, fees and impositions otherwise applicable that are or may be imposed by the city, except that the franchisee shall be entitled to a credit in payment of franchise fees in the amount of any telecommunications service occupation tax due pursuant to Chapter 3.01 of this Code, as may be amended. The franchise fee is compensation for use of the right-of-way and shall in no way be deemed a tax of any kind.
There is some confusion over the naming of this concept. The city’s Comprehensive Annual Financial Report uses “franchise taxes.” The budget documents and the code shown above use “franchise fees.” Either way, this is extra money people must pay when they use utilities, as illustrated on these excerpts from electric and gas bills.
But should city residents have to pay this tax or fee? The city explains that the fee is “compensation for use of the right-of-way.” That makes sense. If someone owns something and someone else wants to use it, charging a fee is reasonable, if the parties agree.
Except: Who owns the right-of-way? The people of Wichita, of course. So our city government is charging us a tax (or fee) to use something we own. That’s clever — deviously clever. And something that only government can do.
I don’t want to give our city leaders any ideas, but when the city is complaining about not having enough revenue to fund everything it wants, it should look at franchise taxes. (Sorry, I mean fees.) While the city budget explains that the rates are the results of agreements between the utility companies and the city, why would utility companies object to an increase in franchise tax rates? They would simply pass along the tax to their customers, just as retail stores do when the state raises the sales tax rate. Certainly the water and sewer utilities would not object, as they are owned by the city.
Wichita, City of. Comprehensive Annual Financial Report for Fiscal Year Ended December 31, 2015. Page A-6. ↩
City of Wichita, Kansas 2017-2018 Proposed Budget. Page 61. ↩
A proposal for a community improvement district in downtown Wichita includes a public hearing, but much information the public needs is missing.
This week the Wichita City Council will consider starting the process of creating a community improvement district and other economic development incentives. The action the council will consider Tuesday is to accept the petition of the property owners and set September 6 as the date for the public hearing. Also, on September 6, “a development agreement defining the City and Developer’s responsibilities will be presented to the City Council.”1
A community improvement district, or CID, is a geographical district in which merchants add extra sales tax, known as the CID tax. This extra tax is then routed to the property owners. CIDs may be of two types. In one, the city borrows money to give to the developers, and the CID tax repays the bonds. In the second, no money is borrowed. Instead, the CID tax is periodically remitted to the developers as it is collected. The proposed CID is of the latter type. It is proposed to collect a CID tax of 1.5 percent for up to ten years, with a limit of $930,000. (For more information about how CIDs work, see Community improvement districts in Kansas.)
City documents also state the developers will request industrial bond financing. In this case, according to city documents, the purpose of the IRBs is to avoid paying sales tax on property purchased. The developers are also requesting use of the nearby state office building parking garage, but no details are given.
A public hearing?
The September 6th meeting will include a public hearing regarding the CID, industrial revenue bonds, parking agreement, and development agreement. As of today, we have information about the CID. But we have little or no information about the other items to be considered that day, which is billed as a public hearing.
If a public hearing is to include meaningful input from the public, the city needs to provide citizens with information about these items, and soon.
What is the need for these economic development incentives? No reason is given. Some incentive programs require that the applicant demonstrate financial necessity. In other words, if the incentive is not given, it is impossible to proceed. No such argument has been advanced for this project. And if such an argument were to be made, we have to ask why are incentives needed to develop in downtown Wichita?
Since these incentives are proposed for a hotel, supporters argue that the cost of the incentives — at least the CID — will be borne by visitors to Wichita. This development, however, will contain a rooftop bar and ground floor commercial space. To the extent that Wichitans patronize these business firms, they will pay the CID tax. Even considering only the hotel, there are many Wichita-based companies whose employees travel to Wichita, staying in hotels at their companies’ expense. Wichita companies will be paying the CID tax in these cases. They will also pay the tourism fee, even though their employees are not tourists.
Besides, we shouldn’t view visitors to Wichita as a cash cow. Visitors staying in this hotel will pay these taxes:
State of Kansas sales tax, 6.5%
Sedgwick County sales tax, 1.0%
Wichita hotel tax, 6%
City tourism fee, 2.75%2
CID tax, 1.5%
The total of these taxes is 17.75%. (Yes, Wichita does charge visitors a “tourism fee.” If Wichita voters had followed the recommendation of the city, its bureaucrats, and the political class, there would be an additional tax of one percent.3)
Finally: As with all CIDs, why don’t the merchants simply raise their prices? Part of the answer is that the CID tax goes to benefit the landowners, which may not be the same party as the merchants who collect the tax.
Other than that, it’s convenient to have someone to blame higher prices on.
Thousands of Wichita homeowners may soon be lawbreakers if the city council follows its staff’s recommendation.
An update is at the end of this article.
This week the Wichita City Council may make your house number illegal, even though those numbers may — literally — be set in stone. This will be the case if the council takes the action recommended by its Department of Public Works and Utilities.
Current city code requires address numbers three inches high. The proposed ordinance requires numbers four inches tall. The penalty for noncompliance is $500 per day, with each day being “a separate and distinct offence.”
Sec. 10.04.190. – Same — Duty of owner or occupant to place; size, etc.
The owner or occupant of each and every house or building in the city is required to place on the house or building, in a conspicuous place, numbers of at least three inches in height of a type to be selected by the owner or occupant, which numbers shall be in conformity with and according to the provisions of the two preceding sections of this chapter. (Ord. No. 14-491 § 2)
SECTION 10. Section 10.04.190 of the Code of the City of Wichita, Kansas, is hereby amended to read as follows:
“Duty of owner or occupant to place; size, etc.”
The owner or occupant of every house or building in the City is required to conspicuously place on the house or building house numbers of at least four (4) inches in height. Painting house numbers on the Curb alone shall not be sufficient to comply with this Section.
Such numbers shall be consistent with Sections 10.04.170 and 10.04.180. Such numbers shall be of a sufficient contrast such that police officers and firefighters can read the numbers from the abutting street. Any property owner failing to comply with this Section is guilty of a misdemeanor punishable by a fine not to exceed five hundred (500) dollars. Each day house numbers are not properly placed on the house or building is a separate and distinct offence.
At its August 9 meeting, the city council deferred this item to September.
It’s interesting to look at campaign finance reports. Following, a few highlights on a report from the David Dennis campaign. He’s a candidate for Sedgwick County Commission in the August Republican Party primary election. The report was filed July 25, 2016, covering the period from January 1, 2016 through July 21, 2016. These reports are available online at the Sedgwick County Election Office website.
Keith Stevens, $200
A longtime Democrat community activist, always on the side of higher taxes and more government spending.
Suzanne F. Ahlstrand, $250
Gary & Cathy Schmitt, $100
Jon E. Rosell, $100
Charlie Chandler, Maria Chandler, $1,000 total
Al and Judy Higdon, $500
James & Vera Bothner, $250
Lyndon O. & Marty Wells, $500
All are, or have been, affiliated with the Wichita Metro Chamber of Commerce in various roles, including paid staff and leadership. At one time local chambers of commerce were dedicated to pro-growth economic policies and free markets. But no longer. The Wichita Chamber regularly advocates for more taxes (the 2014 Wichita sales tax campaign was run by the Wichita Chamber), more spending, more cronyism, and less economic freedom. It campaigns against fiscally conservative candidates when the alternative is a candidate in favor of more taxes. The Chamber says it does all this in the name of providing jobs in Wichita. If you’re wondering who ground down the Wichita economy over the past few decades, look no further than the Wichita Chamber of Commerce and its affiliates who have run Wichita’s economic development bureaucracy.
Harvey Sorensen, $500
Sorensen was one of the drivers behind the 2014 one cent per dollar Wichita city sales tax proposal, serving as co-chair of Yes Wichita, the primary group campaigning for the tax. In a public forum Sorensen said, “Koch Industries is going to spend a million dollars to try to kill the future of our community.”1 Wichita voters rejected that sales tax, with 62 percent of voters voting “No.”2 Since the election, we’ve learned that we can satisfy our water future needs by spending much less than Sorensen recommended, at least $100 million less.3 Part of the Wichita Metro Chamber of Commerce cabal, Sorensen has played both sides of the street, having donated $500 to Jeff Longwell and the same amount to his opponent Sam Williams in the 2015 Wichita mayoral election. We might be led to wonder if Sorenson makes contributions based on sincerely held beliefs regarding public policy, or simply for access to officeholders.
Jon, Lauren, David, and Barbara Rolph, $2,000 total
Jon Rolph was another co-chair of Yes Wichita, the primary group campaigning for the 2014 Wichita city sales tax. Since then he’s floated the idea of trying again for a city sales tax.
Plumbers & Pipefitters Local Union No. 441 Political Action Committee, $500
Labor unions rarely — very rarely — make campaign contributions to Republicans. Except for David Dennis.
Bryan K & Sheila R Frye, $50
Bryan Frye is a newly-elected Wichita City Council member who has quickly found a home among the other big-taxing, big-spending council members. He’d very much like a county commissioner who is compliant with more taxes and more spending — like David Dennis.
Lynn W. & Kristine L. Rogers, $50
Lynn Rogers is a Republican-turned-Democrat. As a member of the Wichita public schools board, he is an advocate for more school spending, less school accountability, and no school choice.
Alan J. & Sharon K. Fearey, $100
A Democrat, Sharon Fearey served two terms on the Wichita City Council. She was always an advocate for more taxes and spending, even scolding the Wichita Eagle when it thwarted her spending plans.
Foley Equipment, $500
Ann Konecny, $500
Foley was an advocate for the 2014 Wichita city sales tax, contributing $5,000 to the campaign. The next year, Foley asked for an exemption from property taxes and the sales tax that it campaigned for.4 Foley wanted poor people in Wichita to pay more sales tax on groceries, but didn’t want to pay that same sales tax itself.
BF Wichita, L.L.C., $500
A company affiliated with George Laham. He’s a partner in the taxpayer-subsidized River Vista Apartment project on the west bank of the Arkansas River north of Douglas Avenue. Rumor is that the apartment project will be abandoned in favor of selling the land as the site for an office building.
Automation Plus, $500
Sheryl Wohlford, Vice President, is a longtime progressive activist, a member of Wichita Downtown Vision Team. In short, someone who knows how to spend your money better than you.
Steven E. Cox, Janis E. Cox, $1,000 total
Owners of Cox Machine, this company regularly applies for and receives taxpayer-funded incentives, including the forgiveness of paying sales tax. Yet, this company contributed $2,000 to the campaign for the 2014 Wichita city sales tax.
Leon or Karen Lungwitz, $500
Owner of company where Wichita mayor Jeff Longwell once worked.
Slawson Commercial Properties, LLC, $500
Socora Homes, Inc., $500
New Market 1, LLC, $500
Buildings 22-23-24, LLC, $500
All are Slawson companies, advocates of and beneficiaries of taxpayer-funded subsidies.
Carl & Cathy Brewer, $200
The Democrat former mayor of Wichita. Enough said about that.
Tom Winters, $250
Winters is emblematic of the big-taxing, big-spending Republican officeholder who believes he knows how to spend your money better than you. Karl Peterjohn defeated Winters in the August 2008 primary election.
Timothy R. Austin, $150
We might label Austin as “engineer for the cronies” based on his frequent appearances before governmental bodies advocating for taxpayer-funded subsidy for his clients.
In this episode of WichitaLiberty.TV: New outlets for news, and criticism of the existing. Is Kansas government “hollowed out?” Ideology and pragmatism. View below, or click here to view at YouTube. Episode 124, broadcast July 17, 2016.
Comments by two Wichita city council members give citizens more reasons to be cynical and distrusting of politicians.
In a recent Facebook post that someone sent to me, Wichita City Council Member Pete Meitzner (district 2, east Wichita) wrote: “Hmmmm…..of note; Wichita is the only sizable city in Kansas that does not ADD any sales tax on top of the State and Sedgwick County sales tax rate.”
It is astonishing that council member Meitzner would brag of this — that Wichita has no city sales tax. That’s because Meitzner, along with all council members but one, voted to place the sales tax measure on the November 2014 ballot. Wichita voters rejected that sales tax, with 62 percent of voters voting “No.”1
Meitzner is not the only council member to brag of no city sales tax in Wichita. Just a month after the November 2014 election in which Wichita voters rejected the sales tax, Wichita City Council Member James Clendenin (district 3, southeast and south Wichita) said, in a council meeting, “thanks to a vote we just had, [Wichita] has zero municipal sales tax.”2
I wonder: If the Wichita city sales tax had passed, would Meitzner and Clendenin feel the same way?
The answer is “No.” If the sales tax had passed, I believe Wichita city council members Pete Meitzner and James Clendenin would be congratulating themselves on the wisdom and foresight that led them to allow Wichitans to vote on the tax. They would be boasting of their ability to gauge the sentiment of public opinion. They would be proud of the investment they are making in Wichita’s future.
That’s important to remember. The city council, at its initiative, decided to place the sales tax on the ballot. Why would the council do this if it did not believe the tax was a good thing for the city?
Because if the tax would not be good for Wichita, then we have to wonder: Why did the Wichita City Council — including Pete Meitzner and James Clendenin — decide that the people of Wichita should vote on a sales tax? Was it a whim? A flight of fancy? Just a poll to gauge public opinion, without binding meaning?
Anyone can conduct a poll of public opinion. But when the Wichita city council places a measure on the ballot asking whether there should be a sales tax, the results have meaning. The results are binding. There will be a new tax, if a majority of voters agree.
Say, what should we ask the city council to let us vote on this November?
We have to ask: Why would Wichita city council members allow Wichitans to vote on a tax they didn’t — personally — believe in? There is no good answer to this question. So when we see city council members boasting of no city sales tax in Wichita, remember this was not their preference. This is especially important because the city told us we needed to spend $250 million of the tax on a new water supply. Now we know that we can satisfy our future needs by spending much less, at least $100 million less.3
Lily Tomlin once said “No matter how cynical you become, it’s never enough to keep up.” Here we have two Wichita city council members illustrating and reinforcing the truth of Tomlin’s observation.
In this episode of WichitaLiberty.TV: Citizen activists were concerned about unleashing a corrupting influence in Wichita City Hall, but they didn’t know it’s already there. Then, the regulatory landscape in Wichita. Finally, what can a pencil teach us about how the world works? View below, or click here to view at YouTube. Episode 121, broadcast June 12, 2016.
Wichita offers special regulatory treatment for special circumstances, widening the gulf between the haves and have-nots.
The Wichita Eagle reports that part of what the City of Wichita is offering to Cargill as an inducement to stay in Wichita is regulatory relief.1 In particular:
The city has offered smaller incentives to Cargill as well, including an ombudsman.
[Wichita assistant city manager and director of development Scot] Rigby called the ombudsman something of a project manager.
“They’ll just call one person,” Rigby said of Cargill’s dealings with the city. “It’s a way to eliminate … a business trying to figure out, how do I get through the labyrinth of city processes?”
Rigby said the city has done this with other companies, such as Spirit AeroSystems and JR Custom Metal Products, and would do it for any company with an expansion or project that needs streamlining.
He said the city also is committed to work with the state and the Greater Wichita Partnership to create a talent recruitment position that could help Cargill and other companies recruit employees at all levels.
The city has said it would offer a 15-day turnaround instead of the customary 30 days for plan review and permits, along with a 50 percent reduction in plan review, utility and building permit fees.
Let me repeat the highlights:
labyrinth of city processes
15-day turnaround instead of the customary 30 days
50 percent reduction in … fees
All of this is an explicit admission that City of Wichita regulations are burdensome. If not, why would the city devote time and expense to helping Cargill obtain relief from these regulations?
Further: Why do we have these regulations? If the purpose of the regulations is to protect people from harm, how can we relax or streamline them for the benefit of a few companies? Wouldn’t that expose people to the harm the regulations purportedly prevent?
What’s even worse is this: Cargill is a large company with — presumably — fleets of bureaucrats and lawyers trained to deal with burdensome government regulation. These costs can be spread across a large company. Meaning that Cargill can afford to overcome burdensome regulations.
What about the small companies that don’t have fleets of bureaucrats and lawyers? That can’t spread the costs of burdensome regulation across a large volume of business? What will the city do for these companies? This is especially important because the spirit of entrepreneurship the city wants to cultivate is most commonly found in small, young, companies. The type without fleets of bureaucrats and lawyers.
Well, the city says it would do for any company what it is doing for Cargill.
Except: How are companies supposed to know to ask for regulatory relief, streamlining, and a discount on fees?
And is it equitable to offer special companies special regulatory relief when it is not readily available for all?
Last year Kansas Policy Institute, in collaboration with the Hugo Wall School of Public Affairs at Wichita State University produced a report titled “Business Perceptions of the Economic Impact of State and Local Government Regulations.”2 On the city’s offer of special treatment to one company, KPI Vice President and Policy Director James Franko commented:
This bears out one of the key findings from a paper we did with WSU’s Hugo Wall School: Companies want transparency and simplicity in the local regulatory environment. Businesses are not as concerned about the regulation themselves as they are in navigating what the city admits is a “labyrinth” of regulations and processes.
The regulatory process should be simplified for all businesses, not just a few. Hopefully there is a realization that an “ombudsman,” or better yet a transparent, straightforward regulatory regime, should be available to anyone wanting to start or grow a business in Wichita.
Instead of the city offering regulatory relief on an as-needed, as-requested basis, why not simplify and streamline regulation for everyone? That seems to make a lot of sense. But if you were a city politician or bureaucrat, this isn’t in your best interest. If regulations are burdensome, and you — as a bureaucrat or officeholder — can offer relief, then you have power. You become important. You have the ability to grant favors and make people feel special.
But if regulations were streamlined and reformed for everyone as the city will do for Cargill, then bureaucrats and politicians would not be so powerful and important. But the people would be more free and prosperous. Think about that trade off.
An interview with James Franko of Kansas Policy Institute on the topic of regulation is on WichitaLiberty.TV here.
The Wichita ASR water project produced little water during the first four months of 2016. There were many days when river flow was adequate.
An important part of Wichita’s water supply infrastructure is the Aquifer Storage and Recovery program, or ASR. This is a program whereby water is taken from the Little Arkansas River, treated, and injected in the Equus Beds aquifer.12 That water is then available in the future as is other Equus Beds water.
With a cost so far of $247 million, the city believes that ASR is a proven technology that will provide water and drought protection for many years. In 2014 the city recommended that voters approve $250 million for its expansion, to be paid for by a sales tax.3 Voters rejected the tax in the November 2014 election.
Spring 2016 production
For the months of January through March 2016, the ASR project recharged no water. (Click charts for larger versions.)
In April 2016, the ASR project recharged 22,226,150 gallons of water.4 The design capacity for ASR is 30,000,000 gallons per day, so production for the entire month of April is less than one day’s design capacity.
The ASR project is able to draw from the Little Arkansas River when the flow is above 30 cfs. As can be seen in the chart of the flow of the river, the flow was above this level every day. In April, there was adequate river flow for ASR to operate every day of the month, counting only those days when the flow was above 30 cfs for the entire day. There were many days in January, February, and March with adequate river flow, but no water was recharged during these months.5
ASR project background and production
According to city documents, the original capacity of the ASR phase II project to process water and pump it into the ground (the “recharge” process) was given as “Expected volume: 30 MGD for 120 days.” That translates to 3,600,000,000 (3.6 billion or 3,600 million) gallons per year. ASR phase II was completed in 2011.
At a city council workshop in April 2014, Director of Public Works and Utilities Alan King briefed the council on the history of ASR, mentioning the original belief that ASR would recharge 11,000 acre feet of water per year. But he gave a new estimate for production, telling the council that “What we’re finding is, we’re thinking we’re going to actually get 5,800 acre feet. Somewhere close to half of the original estimates.” The new estimate translates to 1,889,935,800 (1.9 billion) gallons per year.6
Based on experience, the city has produced a revised estimate of ASR production capability. What has been the actual experience of ASR? The U.S. Geological Survey has ASR figures available here. I’ve gathered the data and performed an analysis. (Click charts for larger versions.)
I’ve produced a chart of the cumulative production of the Wichita ASR project compared with the original projections and the lower revised projections. The lines for projections rise smoothly, although it is expected that actual production is not smooth. The second phase of ASR was completed sometime in 2011, but no water was produced and recharged that year. Further, 2013 was a drought year, so to present ASR in the best possible light, I’ve prepared a chart starting in July 2013. That was when it started raining heavily, and data from USGS shows that the flow in the Little Arkansas River was much greater. Still, the ASR project is not keeping up with projections, even after goals were lowered.
On the chart of monthly production, the horizontal line represents the revised annual production projection expressed as a constant amount each month. This even rate of production is not likely, as river flow varies. In the three years that ASR phase II has been in production, that monthly target been exceeded in three months.
Two nearby charts give an idea of the efficiency of operation of the ASR project. (Click charts for larger versions.) For each month, I counted how many days had a river flow above 30 cfs at every measurement for the day. (The flow is measured several dozen times a day.) If a day had all measurements above 30 cfs, I counted that as a day of adequate river flow. I then calculated the number of days of work actually accomplished using the water produced each month, the number of days of adequate river flow for the month, and the ASR design capacity.
As can be seen in the charts, the ASR project is operating far below its design goal.
Another Wichita company that paid to persuade you to vote for higher taxes now seeks to avoid paying those taxes.
Next week the Wichita City Council will consider issuing industrial revenue bonds to benefit a local company. In Kansas, IRBs are not a loan of money from government. Instead, the bonds are a vehicle for conveying property tax abatements, and often sales tax exemptions. 1 The applicant company is Hijos, LLC/JR Custom Metal Products, Inc.
City documents give the value of abated taxes at $44,900 for the first year. Following years will probably be similar.
Besides property tax breaks, industrial revenue bonds can convey an exemption from paying sales taxes on purchases. City documents don’t state the amount of sales tax the company might avoid paying. But documents state the bonds will be used to fund capital equipment in the amount of $2,686,000. Sales tax on that is $201,450.
City documents also state this expansion will add 13 new jobs over the next five years at an average wage of $41,995.
Like several other companies that have received an exemption on paying sales tax on their purchases, 2345 JR Custom Metals advocated for you to pay more sales tax. During the campaign for the one cent per dollar Wichita sales tax in 2014, this company contributed $1,000 to persuade voters to approve the tax.
But now it seeks to avoid paying all sales tax on these purchases. It has done this several times in the recent past.
The jobs are welcome. But this incident and many others like it reveal a capacity problem, which is this: We need to be creating nine jobs every day in order to make any significant progress in economic growth. 6 If it takes this much effort and the forgiveness of hundreds of thousands of dollars in taxes to create 13 jobs over five years, how much effort and subsidy will it take to create the many thousands of jobs we need to create every year?
Some citizen activists and Wichita city council members believe that a single $500 campaign contribution from a corporation has a corrupting influence. But stacking dozens of the same $500 contributions from executives and spouses of the same corporation? Not a problem.
On December 1, 2015 the Wichita City Council considered an ordinance regarding campaign finance for city elections. A Wichita Eagle article on the topic started with: “A proposed change in city ordinance would allow corporations, labor unions and political action committees to have a greater influence on Wichita politics. For years, city elections have remained insulated from the power of those groups, unlike national and state elections, because Wichita ordinance specifically forbids them from contributing to local campaigns.” 1
The city believed the proposed action was necessary to comply with recent court rulings. Under the proposed ordinance — which was passed by the council — corporations, labor unions, and political action committees would be able to make a single campaign contribution per election cycle of up to $500, the same limit as for individuals.
During the council meeting, citizens testified as to the terrible consequences should the council pass this ordinance. Here are a few excerpts taken from the minutes of the meeting:
“Citizens United has unleashed Frankenstein monsters purchasing our government with their pocket money.”
“Stated corruption and conflicts of interest have become institutionalized and what City legal counsel suggests will sell the Council and the City of Wichita to the highest bidder.”
“Stated according to a lengthy report last week, by the Pew Research Center, across party lines people are distrustful and concerned about big money in politics.”
“Stated big money does not donate, it invests and buys democracy. Stated she is asking the City Council to keep big money out of the City Council elections.”
“Allowing big money into City elections is a concern.”
“Stated the City has been independent and has a freedom from influence that the state and the nation do not enjoy. Stated you will then be under the thumb of people who want to control you. which is scary to those of them who are highly opposed to this situation and hopes that the Council will think of them and how this vote will benefit them.”
“Stated the League [of Women Voters] has studied campaign finance over the years at all three levels. Stated they are currently involved in the study of money and politics and their position currently reads that they want to improve the methods of financing political campaigns in order to ensure the public’s right to know and combat corruption and undue influence, which is their biggest concern.”
In its reporting after the meeting, the Eagle reported more concern: 2
But those who oppose the measure said they were concerned about opening up local elections to party-affiliated groups like PACs and about transparency since PACs do not have to report their individual donors.
“Individuals should decide elections, not corporations,” Frye said.
Several members of the public spoke against the changes.
“People in the shadows are going to be pulling your strings,” said Russ Pataki.
“It’s very worrisome what big money has done to state and national politics. The city has been independent (of that),” said Lynn Stephan to the council before the vote. “You have a freedom from influence the state and nation don’t enjoy.”
So, people are concerned about the corrupting influence of political campaign donations from corporations and political action committees. Citizens — and the Wichita Eagle — believe that currently the city council is free from this influence.
But the reality of city council campaign financing is different.
In my testimony at the December 1 meeting, I explained that there are a few corporations that stack campaign contributions in a way that circumvents prohibitions. Although I did not mention it at the meeting, sometimes campaign finance reporting laws allowed this to happen without disclosure until after relevant action had happened. To illustrate, here is a timeline of events involving just one company and its campaign contributions.
2008 and 2009
Executives of Key Construction and their spouses make six contributions to the Lavonta Williams campaign, totaling $3,000.
2010 and 2011
Executives of Key Construction and their spouses make eight contributions to the Carl Brewer campaign, totaling $4,000. Brewer was Wichita mayor running for re-election in 2011.
Executives of Key Construction and their spouses make eight contributions to the Jeff Longwell campaign, totaling $4,000.
The City of Wichita is preparing to build a new airport terminal with a cost of around $100 million. Key Construction and Dondlinger and Sons Construction are two bidders. The contract is controversial. Dondlinger submitted a lower bid than Key, but it was alleged that Dondlinger’s bid did not meet certain requirements.
January 24, 2012
Executives of Key Construction and their spouses make six contributions to the James Clendenin campaign, totaling $3,000.
April 2, 2012
On this day and the next, executives of Key Construction and their spouses make eight contributions to the Jeff Longwell campaign for Sedgwick County Commission, totaling $4,000. At the time, Longwell was a Wichita city council member.
April 17, 2012
On this day and the next, executives of Key Construction and their spouses make eight contributions to the Lavonta Williams campaign, totaling $4,000.
July 16, 2012
An executive of a Michigan construction company and his wife contribute $1,000 to Longwell’s campaign for county commission. The company, Walbridge, is partnering with Wichita-based Key Construction to bid on the Wichita airport terminal contract.3
July 17, 2012
The Wichita city council votes in favor of Key Construction and Walbridge on a dispute over the airport terminal contract, adding over $2 million to its cost. Brewer, Longwell, Williams, and Clendenin participated in the meeting and voted. City documents state the job of the council this day was to determine whether the staff who made the decision in favor of Key Construction “abused their discretion or improperly applied the law.”4
July 20, 2012
An additional $2,250 in contributions from Walbridge executives to the Jeff Longwell campaign for Sedgwick County Commission campaign is reported.
Williams and Clendenin file campaign finance reports for the calendar year 2012. This is the first opportunity to learn of the campaign contributions from Key Construction executives and their spouses during 2012. For Williams, the Key Construction-related contributions were the only contributions received for the year. Clendenin received contributions from Key Construction-related individuals and parties associated with one other company during the year.
Is there a pattern? Yes. Key Construction uses its executives and their spouses to stack individual contributions, thereby bypassing the prohibition on campaign contributions from corporations. This has been going on for some time. It is exactly the type of corrupting influence that citizens are worried about. It has been taking place right under their eyes, if they knew how or cared to look. And Key Construction is not the only company to engage in this practice.
Just to summarize: The Wichita city council was charged to decide whether city officials had “abused their discretion or improperly applied the law.” That sounds almost like a judicial responsibility. How much confidence should we have in the justice of a decision if a majority of the judges have taken multiple campaign contributions from executives (and their spouses) of one of the parties?
In some ways, it is understandable that citizens might not be aware of this campaign contribution stacking. The campaign finance reports that council members file don’t contain the name of contributors’ employers. It takes a bit of investigation to uncover the linkage between contributors and the corporations that employ them. For citizens, that might be considered beyond the call of duty. But we should expect better from organizations like the League of Women Voters.
Certainly there is no excuse for the Wichita Eagle to miss or avoid things like this. Even worse, it is disgraceful that the Eagle would deny the problem, as it did in its November 23 article quoted above.
In summary, some citizen activists — most council members, too — believe that a single $500 campaign contribution from a corporation has a corrupting influence. But stacking dozens of the same $500 contributions from executives and spouses of the same corporation? Not a problem.
Political campaign contributions are a form of speech and should not be regulated. What we need are so-called pay-to-play laws, which regulate the linkage between campaign contributions and council member participation in matters that benefit donors.5
Either that, or we need council members with sufficient character to recognize when they should refrain from voting on a matter.
Wichita’s mayor pens an op-ed that is counter to facts that he knows, or should know.
In the pages of the Wichita EagleWichita Mayor Jeff Longwell wrote: “The city of Wichita has held its mill levy steady for the past 22 years.”1
That’s the mayor’s opinion. The facts, as can be easily found in government documents, are that the Wichita mill levy rises nearly every year.2 Since 2005 it has risen every year.
The mayor, city council, and bureaucrats say they have not taken action to raise the mill levy. They also say the mill levy is set by the county. All this is true.
But the county sets the mill levy based on two factors, one the city controls: The amount it decides to spend. The other factor, the assessed valuation of property, is not controlled by the city. So it is understandable that the mill levy may vary by small amounts from year to year when the two numbers are melded to form the actual mill levy. Some years the levy might rise, and in some years, it may fall. If it is a truly random matter, we should expect that over time the number of rising years and falling years should be equal, and that the overall change should be near zero.
But in Wichita, the mill levy rises nearly every year. And over time, since 1995, it has risen by 4.46 percent.
(Besides that, there has been a shift in the application of property tax revenue, with revenue was diverted from debt service to current spending. As recently as 2007 the city devoted 31 percent of property tax revenue to debt service. In 2015 it was 26 percent.)
What should concern Wichitans about their mayor’s op-ed is that he knows these facts. Or, at least he should. Despite the data that is readily available in the city’s comprehensive annual financial reports, Mayor Longwell has chosen to remain misinformed and/or uninformed, and to spread that to citizens.
Following are excerpts from the minutes of the August 7, 2012 council meeting, which Jeff Longwell attended as council member, and following that, video.
Wichita City Council, August 7, 2012
Bob Weeks 2451 Regency Lakes Court stated we say the City has not raised its mill levy in a long time and thinks it is true that this Council has not taken action to raise the mill levy, but it has increased. Stated in 2002 the City’s mill levy was 31.845 and last year 32.359, which is an increase of about half a mill or 1.6 percent. Stated we should also recognize that property tax revenue increased from about $83 million to $118 million dollars or 42 percent. Stated we did not experience anything near that in the rate of growth of population or inflation? even the two put together. Stated in the City sales tax collection for the same years, $41 million to about $55 million or 34 percent increase. Stated City revenues have increased quite a bit even though the Council has not taken explicit action to increase either the sales tax rate or the property tax rate. Stated another thing he is concerned about is shifting one mill of property tax revenue from the debt service fund to the general fund. Stated over the past years since 2007 there has been a shift of about 2.5 mills, which is more than the explicit policy of one mill, which will be ending over the next two years. Stated we have not delayed paying off debt in the sense that we have not made our scheduled bond payments but that 2.5 mills could have been used to retire debt instead of supporting current spending. Stated we could have repurchased some of our outstanding bonds or we could have used that money to pay for things that we borrowed for. Stated we need to realize that we have been not taking advantage of opportunities to retire longterm debt and had been redirecting that spending to current fund spending, which is where Cowtown and the Nature Center come from. Stated we need to be aware of these types of things as we make the policies going forward.
Mayor Brewer asked staff to explain the figures that Mr. Weeks was talking about.
Kelly Carpenter Finance Director stated regarding the mill levy, they started out at 10 mills in the capital improvement plan. Stated they reduced that down to 7.5 mills and now we are gradually increasing that mill levy back up in the debt service fund to 8.5 mills over the next two years.
Council Member O’Donnell stated he was referring that the mill levy has actually increased.
Kelly Carpenter Finance Director stated the overall mill levy has not increased within the last 19 years. Stated there has been a shift between the general fund and the debt service fund but the overall mill levy of the 32 mills has not increased.
Council Member O’Donnell asked Mr. Weeks to return to the podium and asked where his figures are from.
Bob Weeks stated from the 2011 Comprehensive Annual Financial Report, page H17. Stated they are the numbers that he extracted from that report. Stated it may not be that this Council took an action to raise the mill levy but somehow it did increase.
Council Member O’Donnell asked staff to answer that.
Mark Manning Finance Department the mill levy is set by the county and what they tell the Council each year is that the mill levy in the proposed budget is not changed from the mill levy certified by the county, the prior year. Stated they do not know what the mill levy will be for 2013 right now and will not know until November when the county finalizes its evaluation. Stated it may be slightly higher or lower and that is why you see those annual fluctuations. Stated Mr. Weeks is correct? some years it goes up and some years it goes down a little bit. Stated it does fluctuate and there is nothing we can do to control that but the general policy has been to keep it level for the last 19 years.
Wichita’s largest employer asks to avoid paying millions in taxes, which increases the cost of government for everyone else, including young companies struggling to break through.
This week the Wichita City Council will consider offering Spirit Aerosystems economic development incentives that will allow the company to avoid paying some $45 million in taxes. This will be accomplished through the authorization of $280 million of Industrial Revenue Bonds. 1
Industrial Revenue Bonds are a vehicle for generating and conveying tax exemptions. 2 In the IRB program, government is not lending money, and Wichita taxpayers are not at risk if the bonds are not repaid. In fact, in the present case the applicant company plans to purchase the bonds itself, according to city documents. Instead, the purpose of the IRB process is to allow Spirit to escape paying property taxes and sales taxes.
Usually the agenda packet the city prepares for council members and the public contains the amount of tax expected to be foregone. For this item that summary is missing, and the sales tax exemption is not mentioned. I have prepared a table summarizing data from the analysis prepared for the city by the Center for Economic Development and Business Research at Wichita State University.
Of note, the share of the cost of the incentives born by the City of Wichita is small, slightly less than one percent. The bulk of the cost is born by the State of Kansas, with the Derby School District and Sedgwick County facing smaller shares of the cost.
Also, the city is forcing a decision on a neighboring jurisdiction that it would not accept for itself, unless it uses one of many exceptions or loopholes. This adverse decision is forced upon the Derby School District. It faces a benefit-cost ratio of 1.16 to 1, which is below the city’s standard of 1.30 to 1, unless an exception is cited. 3 The Derby School District is not involved in this action and has no ability to affect the issuance of these bonds, should it desire to.
Besides this, the granting of these tax breaks calls into question the validity of taxation. If a company can be excused from tens of millions of dollars in taxes, can we say there is equal treatment under law?
Effect on young companies
When large companies receive tax abatements and exemptions, others must pay the cost of government. In particular, small and young business firms are usually not eligible for incentive programs like that being offered to Spirit, and therefore must bear a disproportional share of the cost of government. This is an important consideration, as Wichita is relying on entrepreneurship as a principle method of growing its economy.
The cost of these tax abatements burdens a class of business firms that can’t afford additional cost and risk. These are young startup firms, the entrepreneurial firms that we need to nurture in order to have real and sustainable economic growth and jobs. This action — the award of incentives to an established company — is harmful to the Wichita economy for its strangling effect on entrepreneurship and young companies. As this company and others receive incentives and escape paying taxes, others have to pay.
There’s plenty of evidence that entrepreneurship, in particular young business firms, are the key to economic growth. But Wichita’s economic development policies, as evidenced by this action, are definitely stacked against the entrepreneur. As Wichita props up its established industries, it makes it more difficult for young firms to thrive.
Based on documents supplied by the city, Spirit will avoid paying $6,620,025 in sales tax through its participation in the IRB program. Kansans should be aware that our state has one of the highest sales taxes in the nation on groceries. The effect of this falls disproportionally on low-income households. 4
While Spirit seeks to avoid paying millions in sales tax, it campaigned for ordinary Wichitans to pay more sales tax. When Wichita placed a one cent city sales tax on the ballot in November 2014, Spirit Aerosystems contributed $10,000 to the group campaigning in favor of the sales tax. 5 Spirit’s immediate past president contributed $10,000 to the same effort.
This week American City Business Journals presented the results of a study of small business vitality in cities. 6 Wichita ranked at number 104 out of 106 cities studied. Awarding incentives to large companies places small business at a disadvantage. Not only must small business pay for the cost of government that incentivized companies avoid, small companies must also compete with subsidized companies for inputs such as capital and labor.
Finally, research has found that the pursuit of large companies doesn’t produce the desired growth: “The results show that large firms fail to produce significant net benefits for their host communities, calling into question the high-stakes bidding war over jobs and investment.” 7
The City of Wichita says it hasn’t raised its property tax mill levy in many years. But data shows the mill levy has risen, and its use has shifted from debt service to current consumption.
In 1994 the City of Wichita mill levy rate was 31.290. In 2015 it was 32.686, based on the city’s Comprehensive Annual Financial Report and the Sedgwick County Clerk. That’s an increase of 1.396 mills, or 4.46 percent, since 1994. (These are for taxes levied by the City of Wichita only, and do not include any overlapping jurisdictions.)
The Wichita City Council did not take explicit action to raise this rate. Instead, the rate is set by the county based on the city’s budgeted spending and the assessed value of taxable property subject to Wichita taxation.
While the city doesn’t have control over the assessed value of property, it does have control over the amount it decides to spend.
Also, while some may argue that an increase of 4.46 percent over two decades is not very much, this is an increase in a rate of taxation, not actual tax revenue. As property values rise, and as the mill levy rises, property tax bills rise rapidly.
The total amount of property tax levied is the mill levy rate multiplied by the assessed value of taxable property. This amount has risen, due to these factors:
Appreciation in the value of property
An increase in the amount of property
Spending decisions made by the Wichita City Council
Application of tax revenue has shifted
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 2015 it was 8.509. That’s a reduction of 1.513 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 2015 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.
Despite the data that is readily available in the city’s comprehensive annual financial reports, some choose to remain misinformed and/or uninformed. The following video from 2012 provides insight into the level of knowledge of some former elected officials and city staff. Based on recent discussions with city officials, things have not improved regarding present staff.
State and local leaders need to help meet Cargill’s needs2
The second headline was in response to the news story “Cargill plans to move its Wichita headquarters — but where?” 3 In this story, Carrie Rengers reports “Cargill is looking to move its Wichita headquarters, but whether that’s within downtown, where it already is, or outside of it or even outside of Kansas is unclear. … City and state officials are working in full gear to make sure Wichita — downtown specifically — is the option Cargill selects.”
Rengers reports that Wichita city officials say no specific incentives have been offered to Cargill, but “any incentives likely would involve infrastructure help, such as with parking, or assistance with easing the process for a new building, such as with permitting.” Wichita Mayor Jeff Longwell says “cash incentive won’t be an option,” according to Rengers.
A Cargill official says that the company needs to attract millennials and younger people, who are not attracted to “traditional office space and office-type buildings.”
Now, consider the first opinion headline: “Investment in downtown Wichita is impressive.” In this op-ed, Phillip Brownlee writes “It’s encouraging that investment in downtown Wichita is continuing — and that it is mostly privately funded. A vibrant downtown is important to the city’s image and to attracting and retaining young adults. More than $1 billion in private and public investment has occurred downtown in the past decade. About $675 million of that investment has been privately funded, and $411 million has been public projects, according to Wichita Downtown Development Corp.”
Brownlee goes on to note other investments, such as 800 new apartment units “in the works.”
On the importance of downtown, Brownlee writes “City leaders have long recognized the value of a healthy downtown. Besides the symbolic importance of not having a lot of empty buildings, many young adults prefer an urban environment. That makes downtown important even for businesses not located there, because it can help or hurt their ability to recruit and retain young professionals.”
I see a discontinuity. Our city’s leaders — opinion, elected, and bureaucratic — brag about all the investment in downtown Wichita, public and private, yet it doesn’t seem to be enough to retain a major Wichita employer in downtown.
At least editorialist Rhonda Holman recognizes the problem in her column: “It’s concerning that Cargill’s stated intentions to relocate and consolidate have not included a commitment to remain downtown or even in Wichita or Kansas.” What is her solution? “Elected and business leaders need to be creative and assertive in helping Cargill meet its needs.”
I share Holman’s concern. It’s very troubling that with $411 million in private investment over the past decade, downtown Wichita still isn’t attractive enough to retain Cargill, if the company’s intent to move is real and genuine. And advising the same group of people who have been in power during the decline of the Wichita economy to be “creative and assertive” is a solution?
One of the things that may be offered to Cargill, according to Rengers, is “assistance with easing the process for a new building, such as with permitting.” This is a big red flag on a very tall flagpole. If the city has regulations so onerous that they are a consideration as to whether to locate in Wichita, this is something that must be fixed immediately. But the instinct of the Wichita City Council and city bureaucrats is to create more regulations covering everything from the striping of parking lots to the personal hygiene of taxi drivers.
Mayor Longwell says there will be no cash incentives offered to Cargill. Instead, something like help with parking may be offered. This might take the form of building a parking garage for Cargill. We should ask: What is the difference between giving cash to Cargill and building a parking garage for Cargill’s use? There really isn’t a meaningful difference, except for Cargill. That’s because cash incentives are taxable income. Free use of a parking garage isn’t taxable. 45
Further, Cargill may qualify for PEAK, or Promoting Employment Across Kansas.6 This program allows companies to retain 95 percent of the payroll withholding tax of employees. The original intent of this program was to lure companies to locate in Kansas, but in recent years the program has been expanded to include incentivizing companies to remain in Kansas. While this is a state program and not a city program under the mayor’s control, PEAK benefits are more valuable than cash.