Following, articles that address some of the topics I presented:
Industrial revenue bonds in Kansas: Industrial Revenue Bonds are a mechanism that Kansas cities and counties use to allow companies to avoid paying property and sales taxes.
Wichita TIF projects: some background: Tax increment financing disrupts the usual flow of tax dollars, routing funds away from cash-strapped cities, counties, and schools back to the TIF-financed development. TIF creates distortions in the way cities develop, and researchers find that the use of TIF means lower economic growth.
For the Wichita metropolitan area in August 2018, jobs are up, the unemployment rate is down, and the labor force is smaller, compared to the same month one year ago.
Data released today by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, part of the United States Department of Labor, shows an improving employment situation for the Wichita Metropolitan Statistical Area.
The best numbers for Wichita are the total nonfarm employment series, which rose from 291,300 last August to 296,000 this July. That’s an increase of 4,700 jobs, or 1.6 percent. (This data is not seasonally adjusted, so month-to-month comparisons are not valid.)
The unemployment rate fell to 3.8 percent, down from 4.6 percent from a year ago.
Considering seasonally adjusted data from the household survey, the labor force rose by five persons from July 2018, and the number of unemployed persons fell by 511 (4.7 percent), and the unemployment rate fell to 3.6 percent from 3.8 percent. The number of employed persons not on farms rose to 296,366 in August from 295,810 the prior month, and increase of 556, or 0.2 percent.
Currently there is discussion in Wichita on whether higher education is valued by residents. Following, from April 2011, a look at the educational achievement of the Wichita City Council. The members of the council cited below were Lavonta Williams, Sue Schlapp, Jim Skelton, Paul Gray, Jeff Longwell, and Janet Miller. Carl Brewer was mayor.
Before Jim Skelton left the council in January, none of the four men serving on the Wichita City Council had completed a college degree. The three women serving on the council set a better example, with all three holding college degrees.
Of the candidates running in next week’s election for four council seats and the office of mayor, less than half hold college degrees.
Is it necessary to complete college in order to serve in an office like mayor or city council? Apparently, none of the four men who held these offices without a degree thought so. The two running to retain their present positions — Mayor Carl Brewer and council member Jeff Longwell (district 5, west and northwest Wichita) — evidently don’t think so, or they would not be running again.
But we tell young people that college holds the key to success. We encourage schoolchildren to consider college and to take a rigorous high school curriculum in order to prepare for it. We encourage families to save for college. Our region’s economic development agency promotes the number of people with college or advanced degrees. We promote our colleges and universities as a factor that distinguishes Wichita. We hope that our elected officials will set an example we want young people to follow.
Once in office, we ask our city elected officials to attempt to grasp and understand complex sets of financial data, working with a budget of about half a billion dollars for the City of Wichita. We hope that they will be able to consider large and weighty issues such as the role of government in a free society. Members of the professional management staff — bureaucrats — that manage the city, county, and state are generally required to hold college degrees.
The irony is that elected officials often are highly reliant on the bureaucratic staff for information, data, and advice, and this professional bureaucracy is often highly educated. Does this imbalance create problems?
Elected officials compared to regular people
Amazingly, it turns out that elected officials, as a group, are less knowledgeable about civics than the general population. That’s the finding of Intercollegiate Studies Institute, which surveyed Americans and their knowledge of civics in 2008. After analyzing the data, ISI concluded: “Simply put, the more you know about American government, history, and economics the less likely you are to pursue and win elective office.”
For August 2018, more jobs in Kansas, and a nearly unchanged labor force. Wichita jobs also rose.
Data released this week from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, part of the United States Department of Labor, shows an improving jobs picture for Kansas in August 2018.
Over the year (August 2017 to August 2018), the Kansas labor force is down slightly, while up slightly over the past three months. These changes are small, all being in the range of 0.1 percent or less.
The number of unemployed persons continues to fall, declining by 1.4 percent from July to August. The unemployment rate was 3.3 percent in August, down from 3.6 percent from one year ago, and from 3.4 percent in July.
The number of Kansas nonfarm jobs for August 2018 rose by 1.9 percent over last August, adding 26,600 jobs. This is using seasonally adjusted data, and the non-adjusted figure is larger at 29,900.
From July 2018 to August, jobs in Kansas rose by 3,600, which is 0.3 percent.
This release also provided some data for metropolitan areas. For the Wichita MSA, here are employees on nonfarm payrolls, not seasonally adjusted:
August 2017: 291,300
July 2018: 294,500
August 2018: 296,000 (up 4,700 jobs, or 1.6 percent over the year)
Comparing July 2018 to August 2018 isn’t meaningful using this data, as it is not adjusted for seasonality.
For 2017, the Wichita metropolitan area GDP, in real dollars, fell by 1.4 percent. Revised statistics for 2016 indicate growth of 3.8 percent for that year. Last year BEA reported growth of -1.4 percent.
In the revised statistics released today, GDP in 2012 was 28,346 million in chained 2009 dollars. In 2017 it was 29,610 million, a change of 1,264 million or 4.4 percent. For all U.S. metropolitan areas, the same statistic increased from 13,692,212 million to 15,224,212 million, an increase of 1,532,000 million or 11.2 percent.
The nearby table shows the change in GDP for major industry groups. Non-durable goods manufacturing showed the largest increase at 0.17 percent, while durable goods manufacturing fell by 0.21 percent.
Must the City of Wichita spend its share of Sedgwick County sales tax proceeds in a specific way?
Sedgwick County collects a one-cent per dollar retail sales tax. The county keeps some, then distributes the rest to cities. On Facebook, a question arose regarding how Wichita may spend its share of the sales tax proceeds. Couldn’t some funds that go towards building Kellogg be rerouted to, say, fund the operations of Wichita’s public library system?
A former city council member argued that “As it stands, Wichita cannot spend its allocated portion of that sales tax on anything but roads and bridges.” I posted that there was a Wichita city ordinance that said how the sales tax is to be spent in Wichita, and that ordinance could be modified or canceled. The same former council member admonished me to call a specific person in the city budget office and “he will clarify for you that the City Council doesn’t have the ability to override the Sedgwick County sales tax referendum language.”
I looked for the referendum language. The document is available in Sedgwick County’s election document system. The canvass of the special sales tax election was held on August 2, 1985, and this was reported:
The returns of the election were presented to the Board as received from the official conducting the election on the following proposition:
SHALL THE FOLLOWING BE ADOPTED?
A proposition to enact a countywide retailers’ sales tax in Sedgwick County, Kansas, in the amount of one percent (1%), such tax to take effect on October 1, 1985, pursuant to K.S.A. 1984 Supp. 12-187.
The language of the referendum is silent regarding how the tax revenue may or may not be spent.
There are, however, other considerations. One, according to Mark Manning, the city’s budget officer, is that the city has borrowed money, with proceeds from the sales tax pledged for repayment.
Second, there is a Wichita city ordinance, number 41-185. It pledges half the city’s share of the sales tax towards property tax reduction. Then, it states: “… and pledges the remaining one half of the one percent (1%) of any revenues received to Wichita road, highway and bridge projects including right-of-way acquisitions.” This was adopted on August 25, 1992 and replaced an existing ordinance that said the same.
The 1992 ordinance also holds this, in section II: “It is the specific intent of the Governing Body of the City of Wichita that the City of Wichita continue to use the tax revenues as outlined in this ordinance and that this pledge be continued as a matter of faith and trust between the people and the present and future Governing Bodies of the City of Wichita.”
We often hear that half the city’s share of the sales tax is pledged for Kellogg construction. In actuality it is pledged to “Wichita road, highway and bridge projects.”
But really, it isn’t even pledged to that. The pledge is in the form of a city ordinance. It may be changed at any time at the will of four council members.
Yes, the ordinance says the city intends to continue using the tax revenues in the same way “as a matter of faith and trust.” Unfortunately, that trust has been destroyed in many ways, one being council members who tell us things that aren’t true.
The Wichita City Council will consider approval of a redevelopment plan in a tax increment financing (TIF) district.
This week the Wichita City Council will hold a public hearing considering approval of more tax increment financing (TIF) spending in downtown Wichita. The spending is for the second phase of redevelopment of the Union Station property on East Douglas. According to city documents, the total cost of this phase is $31,000,000, with TIF paying for $2,954,734. 1
This is a pay-as-you-go form of TIF, which means the city does not borrow funds as it would in a traditional TIF district. Instead, the eligible portion of the developer’s property taxes will be rerouted back to the development as they are paid.
The TIF district was established in 2014. The council this week considers a redevelopment plan, which authorizes spending TIF funds on a specific project. Redevelopment plans must be approved by a two-thirds majority of the council. While overlapping jurisdictions like counties and school districts can block the formation of a TIF district, they have no such role in the approval of a redevelopment plan.
Of note, this public hearing is being held after the fact, sort of. City documents state: “A development agreement was approved by the City Council on August 7, to allow for the developer to begin non-TIF eligible improvements in order to meet deadlines for a new tenant.” The city documents for the August 7 meeting hold this: 2
The Developer has requested that the development agreement be approved now, prior to adoption of the project plan, to allow work to begin on the Meade Corridor improvements in order to complete the project in time for the tenant to move in. The Development agreement is drafted to allow for the Meade Corridor improvements to occur following adoption of the agreement, however, any work or reimbursement for TIF is contingent on City Council adoption of the project plan following the September 11 public hearing.
Citizens have to wonder will the September 11 public hearing have any meaning or relevance, given that on August 7 the city gave its de facto approval of the redevelopment plan.
Following, more information about tax increment financing.
Tax increment financing disrupts the usual flow of tax dollars, routing funds away from cash-strapped cities, counties, and schools back to the TIF-financed development. TIF creates distortions in the way cities develop, and researchers find that the use of TIF means lower economic growth.
How TIF works
A TIF district is a geographically-defined area.
In Kansas, TIF takes two or more steps. The first step is that cities or counties establish the boundaries of the TIF district. After the TIF district is defined, cities then must approve one or more project plans that authorize the spending of TIF funds in specific ways. (The project plan is also called a redevelopment plan.) In Kansas, overlapping counties and school districts have an opportunity to veto the formation of the TIF district, but this rarely happens. Once the district is formed, cities and counties have no ability to object to TIF project plans.
Before the formation of the TIF district, the property pays taxes to the city, county, school district, and state as can be seen in figure 1. Because property considered for TIF is purportedly blighted, the amount of tax paid is usually small. Whatever it is, that level is called the “base.”
After approval of one or more TIF project plans the city borrows money and gives it to the project or development. The city now has additional debt in the form of TIF bonds that require annual payments. Figure 2 illustrates. (There is now another form of TIF known as “pay-as-you-go” that works differently, but produces much the same economic effect.)
Figure 3 shows the flow of tax revenue after the formation of the TIF district and after the completion of a project. Because buildings were built or renovated, the property is worth more, and the property tax is now higher. The development now has two streams of property tax payments that are handled in different ways. The original tax — the “base” — is handled just like before, distributed to city, state, school district, and the state, according to their mill levy rates. The difference between the new tax and the base tax — the “increment” — is handled differently. It goes to only two destinations (mostly): The State of Kansas, and repayment of the TIF bonds.
Figure 4 highlights the difference in the flow of tax revenues. The top portion of the illustration shows development outside of TIF. We see the flows of tax payments to city, county, school district, and the state. In the bottom portion, which shows development under TIF, the tax flows to city, county, and school district are missing. No longer does a property contribute to the support of these three units of government, although the property undoubtedly requires the services of them. This is especially true for a property in Old Town, which consumes large amounts of policing.
(Cities, counties, and school districts still receive the base tax payments, but these are usually small, much smaller than the incremental taxes. In non-TIF development, these agencies still receive the base taxes too, plus whatever taxes result from improvement of the property — the “increment,” so to speak. Or simply, all taxes.)
The Kansas law governing TIF, or redevelopment districts as they are also called, starts at K.S.A. 12-1770.
TIF and public policy
Originally most states included a “but for” test that TIF districts must meet. That is, the proposed development could not happen but for the benefits of TIF. Many states have dropped this requirement. At any rate, developers can always present proposals that show financial necessity for subsidy, and gullible government officials will believe.
Similarly, TIF was originally promoted as a way to cure blight. But cities are so creative and expansive in their interpretation of blight that this requirement, if it still exists, has little meaning.
The rerouting of property taxes under TIF goes against the grain of the way taxes are usually rationalized. 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 benefiting from police protection.
So when we pay property tax — or any tax, for that matter — people may be comforted knowing that it goes towards police and fire protection, street lights, schools, and the like. (Of course, some is wasted, and government is not the only way these services, especially education, could be provided.)
But TIF is contrary to this justification of taxes. TIF allows property taxes to be used for one person’s (or group of persons) exclusive benefit. This violates the principle of broad-based taxation to pay for an array of services for everyone. Remember: What was the purpose of the TIF bonds? To pay for things that benefited the development. Now, the development’s property taxes are being used to repay those bonds instead of funding government.
One more thing: Defenders of TIF will say that the developers will pay all their property taxes. This is true, but only on a superficial level. We now see that the lion’s share of the property taxes paid by TIF developers are routed back to them for their own benefit.
It’s only infrastructure
In their justification of TIF in general, or specific projects, proponents may say that TIF dollars are spent only on allowable purposes. Usually a prominent portion of TIF dollars are spent on infrastructure. This allows TIF proponents to say the money isn’t really being spent for the benefit of a specific project. It’s spent on infrastructure, they say, which they contend is something that benefits everyone, not one project specifically. Therefore, everyone ought to pay.
This attitude is represented by a comment left at Voice for Liberty, which contended: “The thing is that real estate developers do not invest in public streets, sidewalks and lamp posts, because there would be no incentive to do so. Why spend millions of dollars redoing or constructing public streets when you can not get a return on investment for that”
This perception is common: that when we see developers building something, the City of Wichita builds the supporting infrastructure at no cost to the developers. But it isn’t quite so. About a decade ago a project was being developed on the east side of Wichita, the Waterfront. This project was built on vacant land. Here’s what I found when I searched for City of Wichita resolutions concerning this project:
Note specifically one item: $1,672,000 for the construction of Waterfront Parkway. To anyone driving or walking in this area, they would think this is just another city street — although a very nicely designed and landscaped street. But the city did not pay for this street. Private developers paid for this infrastructure. Other resolutions resulted in the same developers paying for street lights, traffic signals, sewers, water pipes, and turning lanes on major city streets. All this is infrastructure that we’re told real estate developers will not pay for. But in order to build the Waterfront development, private developers did, with a total cost of these projects being $3,334,500. (It’s likely I did not find all the resolutions and costs pertaining to this project, and more development has happened since this research.)
In a TIF district, these things are called “infrastructure” and will be paid for by the development’s own property taxes — taxes that must be paid in any case. Outside of TIF districts, developers pay for these things themselves.
If not for TIF, nothing will happen here
Generally, TIF is justified using the “but-for” argument. That is, nothing will happen within a district unless the subsidy of TIF is used. Paul F. Byrne explains:
“The but-for provision refers to the statutory requirement that an incentive cannot be awarded unless the supported economic activity would not occur but for the incentive being offered. This provision has economic importance because if a firm would locate in a particular jurisdiction with or without receiving the economic incentive, then the economic impact of offering the incentive is non-existent. … The but-for provision represents the legislature’s attempt at preventing a local jurisdiction from awarding more than the minimum incentive necessary to induce a firm to locate within the jurisdiction. However, while a firm receiving the incentive is well aware of the minimum incentive necessary, the municipality is not.”
“This paper conducts a comprehensive assessment of the effectiveness of Chicago’s TIF program in creating economic opportunities and catalyzing real estate investments at the neighborhood scale. This paper uses a unique panel dataset at the block group level to analyze the impact of TIF designation and investments on employment change, business creation, and building permit activity. After controlling for potential selection bias in TIF assignment, this paper shows that TIF ultimately fails the ‘but-for’ test and shows no evidence of increasing tangible economic development benefits for local residents.” (emphasis added)
In the paper, the author clarifies:
“To clarify these findings, this analysis does not indicate that no building activity or job crea-tion occurred in TIFed block groups, or resulted from TIF projects. Rather, the level of these activities was no faster than similar areas of the city which did not receive TIF assistance. It is in this aspect of the research design that we are able to conclude that the development seen in and around Chicago’s TIF districts would have likely occurred without the TIF subsidy. In other words, on the whole, Chicago’s TIF program fails the ‘but-for’ test.
Later on, for emphasis:
“While the findings of this paper are clear and decisive, it is important to comment here on their exact extent and external validity, and to discuss the limitations of this analysis. First, the findings do not indicate that overall employment growth in the City of Chicago was negative or flat during this period. Nor does this research design enable us to claim that any given TIF-funded project did not end up creating jobs. Rather, we conclude that on-average, across the whole city, TIF was unsuccessful in jumpstarting economic development activity — relative to what would have likely occurred otherwise.” (emphasis in original)
The author notes that these conclusions are specific to Chicago’s use of TIF, but should “should serve as a cautionary tale.”
The paper reinforces the problem of using tax revenue for private purposes, rather than for public benefit: “Essentially, Chicago’s extensive use of TIF can be interpreted as the siphoning off of public revenue for largely private-sector purposes. Although, TIF proponents argue that the public receives enhanced economic opportunity in the bargain, the findings of this paper show that the bargain is in fact no bargain at all.”
TIF is social engineering
TIF represents social engineering. By using it, city government has decided that it knows best where development should be directed. In particular, the Wichita city council has decided that Old Town and downtown development is on a superior moral plane to other development. Therefore, we all have to pay higher taxes to support this development. What is the basis for saying Old Town developers don’t have to pay for their infrastructure, but developers in other parts of the city must pay?
TIF doesn’t work
Does TIF work? It depends on what the meaning of “work” is.
If by working, do we mean does TIF induce development? If so, then TIF usually works. When the city authorizes a TIF project plan, something usually gets built or renovated. But this definition of “works” must be tempered by a few considerations.
Does TIF pay for itself?
First, is the project self-sustaining? That is, is the incremental property tax revenue sufficient to repay the TIF bonds? This has not been the case with all TIF projects in Wichita. The city has had to bail out two TIFs, one with a no-interest and low-interest loan that cost city taxpayers an estimated $1.2 million.
The verge of corruption
Second, does the use of TIF promote a civil society, or does it lead to cronyism? Randal O’Toole has written:
“TIF puts city officials on the verge of corruption, favoring some developers and property owners over others. TIF creates what economists call a moral hazard for developers. If you are a developer and your competitors are getting subsidies, you may simply fold your hands and wait until someone offers you a subsidy before you make any investments in new development. In many cities, TIF is a major source of government corruption, as city leaders hand tax dollars over to developers who then make campaign contributions to re-elect those leaders.”
We see this in Wichita, where the regular recipients of TIF benefits are also regular contributors to the political campaigns of those who are in a position to give them benefits. The corruption is not illegal, but it is real and harmful, and calls out for reform. See In Wichita, the need for campaign finance reform.
The effect of TIF on everyone
Third, what about the effect of TIF on everyone, that is, the entire city or region? Economists have studied this matter, and have concluded that in most cases, the effect is negative.
“TIF districts grow much faster than other areas in their host municipalities. TIF boosters or naive analysts might point to this as evidence of the success of tax increment financing, but they would be wrong. Observing high growth in an area targeted for development is unremarkable.”
So TIF districts are good for the favored development that receives the subsidy — not a surprising finding. What about the rest of the city? Continuing from the same study:
“If the use of tax increment financing stimulates economic development, there should be a positive relationship between TIF adoption and overall growth in municipalities. This did not occur. If, on the other hand, TIF merely moves capital around within a municipality, there should be no relationship between TIF adoption and growth. What we find, however, is a negative relationship. Municipalities that use TIF do worse.
We find evidence that the non-TIF areas of municipalities that use TIF grow no more rapidly, and perhaps more slowly, than similar municipalities that do not use TIF.” (emphasis added)
In a different paper (The Effects of Tax Increment Financing on Economic Development), the same economists wrote “We find clear and consistent evidence that municipalities that adopt TIF grow more slowly after adoption than those that do not. … These findings suggest that TIF trades off higher growth in the TIF district for lower growth elsewhere. This hypothesis is bolstered by other empirical findings.” (emphasis added)
“This article addresses the claim by examining the impact of TIF adoption on municipal employment growth in Illinois, looking for both general impact and impact specific to the type of development supported. Results find no general impact of TIF use on employment. However, findings suggest that TIF districts supporting industrial development may have a positive effect on municipal employment, whereas TIF districts supporting retail development have a negative effect on municipal employment. These results are consistent with industrial TIF districts capturing employment that would have otherwise occurred outside of the adopting municipality and retail TIF districts shifting employment within the municipality to more labor-efficient retailers within the TIF district.” (emphasis added)
These studies and others show that as a strategy for increasing the overall wellbeing of a city, TIF fails to deliver prosperity, and in fact, causes harm.
Wichita city council agenda packet for September 11, 2018. ↩
Wichita city council agenda packet for August 7, 2018. ↩
It may be very expensive for the City of Wichita to terminate its agreement with the Wichita Wingnuts baseball club, and there are questions.
As the City of Wichita prepares to build a new stadium for a new baseball team, there is the issue of the old stadium and the old team. The city has decided that the old stadium will be razed. On Tuesday the city council will consider what to do about the old team.
The old team, the Wichita Wingnuts, has a lease agreement with the city. The lease is from January 2015 and is for a period of ten years. The documents, both the lease from 2015 and the proposed settlement to be considered this week, appear in full in Wichita city council agenda packets. I’ve extracted the relevant pages for easier access. Click on lease or proposed settlement.
According to the settlement, the Wingnuts will receive either $2.2 million or $1.2 million, the smaller amount applying in the case the city is “unable to reach an agreement with an affiliated minor league baseball team in the year 2018.” The payment is scheduled to be made in installments over the next several years. (Section 2c)
Reading the lease, I can’t find anything regarding the need to pay for terminating the lease. So why the need to pay up to $2.2 million to terminate?
Here’s a possible answer: City documents hold this: “This negotiated settlement resolves all claims and potential claims that the parties have or may have, including breach of the Lease, loss of revenue, injunctive relief, specific performance, other contract breaches, tort assertions, and claims for equitable relief without the uncertainly of litigation.”
So there may be disputes that need to be resolved. Now the question becomes this: What did the city do? What could be so bad that the remedy is to pay the Wingnuts up to $2.2 million? Citizens ought to know the answer to this question.
Further, why is the amount of the settlement contingent on what happens in Wichita in the future? (Remember, the settlement is $2.2 million if the city lands a new team, but only $1.2 million if it doesn’t.) If the purpose of the settlement is to compensate the Wingnuts for harm caused by the city, how and why is the magnitude of harm dependent on future events?
Such a large settlement is especially surprising given the low rent the Wingnuts paid and the city’s history with the Wingnuts as a tenant. Consider:
The Wingnuts didn’t always pay their rent. The city charged the Wingnuts just $25,000 annual rent, and the team was $77,000 behind in rent in January 2015. The proposed settlement agreement states: “As of the Effective Date, the 2018 rent payment in the amount of Twenty-five Thousand Dollars ($25,000) due and payable by WIB to the City shall be waived and no longer due and payable by WIB.” (Section 2c) (WIB is the company that owns the Wingnuts.)
There have also been disputes over utility payments. But, the city will forgive the water and sewer bill: “The City shall pay all utility payments due to the Department of Public Works and Utilities that are assessed for 2018.” (Section 2d)
It’s clear that the Wingnuts haven’t always lived up to the basics of its agreement with the city. Why, then, does the city feel such a large obligation upon termination? Paragraph 13 of the lease says “Lessor agrees not to utilize termination for convenience for the purpose of placing any professional baseball franchise at the Lawrence-Dumont Stadium site.” This is what the city is doing. But, in paragraph 23: “The parties agree that upon a violation of any provision of this lease, the aggrieved party may, at its option, terminate this lease by giving the breaching party not less than 30 days written notice of termination.” Non-payment of rent seems like it ought to be a violation of the lease, giving the city the right to terminate the lease for cause.
What is the source of the $2.2 million? City documents state the source is “management agreement payments paid by the new AAA baseball team.” The meaning of “management agreement payments” is unclear and a question that needs an answer. But presumably this is money that the city would receive from the new team. If not paid to the Wingnuts, these funds might be available for other purposes.
And: If the city is not able to land a new team, the city will have to pay the Wingnuts $1.2 million without any compensating revenue source.
Repairs, replacements, and improvements
Here’s a puzzling aspect of the settlement: How was the dollar amount determined? City documents state: “The value of the severance is based on the number of years remaining in the existing lease and the anticipated City financial cost of capital repairs, replacements and improvements over those same remaining years.” (emphasis added)
What? “Repairs, replacements and improvements” to a stadium that will be demolished soon? Why is this a consideration?
Questions, but little time
There are questions, but little time for answers. The agenda packet was posted on the city’s website on Friday September 7, at 12:03 pm. The council will consider this item Tuesday morning.
Do council members have answers to these questions? Some of these matters may have been discussed in executive session. Now that the matters have been settled, it’s time to let citizens know the details.
But if council members don’t have answers, I don’t think they can make an informed vote.
I couldn’t stop noticing. I’d go on to see the same in Colorado Springs, in Fresno, in Indianapolis, in Oklahoma City, in Nashville.
And it wasn’t just the coffee shops — bars, restaurants, even the architecture of all the new housing going up in these cities looked and felt eerily familiar. Every time I walked into one of these places, my body would give an involuntary shudder. I would read over my notes for a city I’d visited months prior and find that several of my observations could apply easily to the one I was currently in.
In his commentary on this article, Aaron M. Renn wrote: “While every company tries its hardest to convince you of how much different and better it is than every other company in its industry, every city tries its hardest to convince you that it is exactly the same as every other city that’s conventionally considered cool.”
Later in the same piece, he wrote:
A challenge these places face is that the level of improvement locally has been so high, locals aren’t aware of how much the rest of the country has also improved. So they end up with an inflated sense of how much better they are doing versus the market. … People in these Midwest cities did not even know what was going on in the next city just 100 miles down the road. They were celebrating all these downtown condos being built. But the same condos were being built everywhere. … But even today people in most cities don’t really seem to get it that every city now has this stuff. Their city has dramatically improved relative to its own recent past, but it’s unclear how much it’s improved versus peers if at all.
Does this — the sameness of everywhere — apply to Wichita? Sure. Everyone thinks Wichita is different from everywhere else. We have a flag! A warehouse district! A Frank Lloyd Wright house! The NCAA basketball tournament! We’re (probably) getting a new baseball team and stadium!
We even have, as Schwindt does in cataloging what you’ll find in every single city mid-size and above, “Public murals that dare you to pass them without posing for a pic for the ‘gram.”
So many other places have this stuff, too.
It isn’t bad that Wichita has these things. But the danger, as Renn notes, is that these things don’t distinguish Wichita. As much as we wish otherwise, these things are probably not going to reverse the course of the declining Wichita economy. If you don’t believe the Wichita economy is declining, consider that our GDP in 2016 was smaller than in the year before. Wichita metro employment growth was nonexistent during 2017, meaning it’s unlikely that GDP grew by much. (In January 2017 total non-farm employment in the Wichita MSA was 295,000. In January 2018 it was the same. See chart here.)
Even things that might really have a positive effect on the economy, like the Wichita State University Innovation Campus, are far from unique to Wichita. But developments like this are pitched to Wichitans as things that will really put Wichita on the map. A prosperous future is assured, we are told.
It’s great to love your city. But we can’t afford to be lulled into complacency — a false recognition of achievement — when all the data says otherwise.
Wichita spending data presented as a summary, and as a list.
As part of an ongoing transparency project, I asked the City of Wichita for check register data. I’ve made the data available in a visualization using Tableau Public. This visualization is updated with data through August 31, 2018.
To learn more about this data and use the visualization, click here.
Wichita spending data presented as a summary, and as a list.
As part of an ongoing transparency project, I asked the City of Wichita for check register data. I’ve made the data available in a visualization using Tableau Public. Click here to access the visualization. To access a simple list in csv format, click here.
Analyzing this data requires a bit of local knowledge. For example, there is a vendor named “Visit Wichita” that started to receive monthly payments in March 2015. What about payments for January and February? Those were made to a vendor named “Go Wichita,” which changed its name to “Visit Wichita.”
Similarly, there are payments made to both “Westar Energy” and “Westar Energy — EDI.” These are the same entities, just as “Visit Wichita” and “Go Wichita” are the same entity. To the city’s credit, the matching pairs have the same vendor number, which is good. But resolving this requires a different level of analysis.
Also, the purpose of payments may not be evident from the payee’s name. For example, “State Street” is the payee that has received the most money over the time period covered by this data. It is a custodial bank for the city’s retirement systems. 1
Of note, there are many checks issued in amounts $20 or less. Bank of America has estimated that the total cost of sending a business check ranges from $4 to $20. 2
It is by now routine for governmental agencies to post spending data like this, but not at the City of Wichita. Upon inquiry, city officials told me that the present financial management system “does not include many modern system features such as an ‘open checkbook.’” An “open checkbook” refers to a modern web interface where citizens can query for specific data and perhaps perform other analysis. An example is Denver’s open checkbook.
We’ve been promised a modern system for many years.
While the next-generation Wichita financial system will probably have such a feature, there’s no reason why citizens can’t experience some of the benefits now. The spreadsheet of spending data could easily be posted on the city’s website on a monthly basis. People like myself will take that data and make it more useful. The city has demonstrated that it is able to post documents to its website, so there is no reason why this should not be happening.
A lawsuit claims that when the City of Wichita refinanced its special assessment bonds, it should have passed on the savings to the affected taxpayers, and it did not do that.
A lawsuit filed in Sedgwick County District Court charges that the City of Wichita improperly handled the savings realized when it refinanced special assessment bonds at a lower interest rate. The case is 2018-CV-001567-CF, filed on July 13, 2018, and available here.
The suit names David L. Snodgrass and Leslie J. Snodgrass as plaintiffs, and a long list of defendants, namely:
The City of Wichita, Kansas
Wichita City Manager Robert Layton
Wichita Finance Director Shawn Henning and Former Wichita Finance Director Kelly Carpenter
Wichita City Clerk Karen Sublett
Wichita Mayor Jeff Longwell and former Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer
Current Wichita City Councilmembers Brandon Johnson, Pete Meitzner, James Clendenin, Jeff Blubaugh, Bryan Frye, and Cindy Claycomb
Former Wichita City Councilmembers Lavonta Williams, Janet Miller, Sue Schlapp, Paul Gray, Jeff Longwell, Jim Skelton, and Michael O’Donnell
Gilmore And Bell, A Professional Corporation
Kutak Rock, LLP
Sedgwick County Treasurer Linda Kizzire
The suit asks for a class to be created consisting of “all other affected land owners paying excess special assessments,” which would, undoubtedly, be many thousands of land owners. No specific amount of relief is requested.
The suit’s basis
The city borrows money by issuing bonds to fund improvements to (generally) new neighborhoods. These bonds pay for things like residential streets, water pipes, and sewer lines. The debt service for these bonds, that is, the money needed to make the bond payments, is charged to benefitting property owners in the form of special assessment taxes, often called “specials.” These specials are separate from the general property taxes that are charged to all property.
General property taxes are based on a property’s assessed value multiplied by a mill levy rate. Specials, however, are based on the cost of the infrastructure and the payments needed to retire the debt. This amount is determined at the time bonds are sold and the repayment schedule is established. (Bond payments depend on the amount borrowed, the length of the repayment period, and the interest rate. All this is known at the time the bonds are issued.)
These specials usually last 15 years, and after paid, no longer appear on a property’s tax bill. Sometimes special assessments are prepaid.
What the city did, and didn’t do, according to plaintiffs
During the last decade, interest rates on long-term bonds generally fell. In response, the city issued refunding bonds. These bonds took advantage of low interest rates by paying off old bonds that had higher interest rates, replacing them with bonds with lower interest rates. The lawsuit alleges that since 2009, the city has issued $216 million in refunding bonds saving $60.2 million, according to city documents cited in the lawsuit. The suit does not specify how much of this savings is attributed to special assessment bonds.
So the city refinanced special assessment debt at a lower rate, reducing the cost of the debt. That’s good. Homeowners often do this when mortgage rates are low, and it’s good that the city does this too.
The problem, according to the lawsuit, is that some of the refinanced debt was special assessment debt. The lawsuit contends that, based on Kansas law, the city should have passed on the savings to the property owners that were paying off this special assessment debt. Instead, says the suit, “the City of Wichita transferred the excess special assessment money paid by affected Wichita taxpayers to support its general fund and/or other municipal funds.” In other words, the city spent the savings on other things, when it should have directed the savings to land owners who were paying the special taxes.
Plaintiffs allege that the conduct of the city and its advisors constitutes fraud against those paying special assessment taxes:
The fraudulent actions of Defendant City of Wichita, along with the other Wichita Defendants, and Defendants Springsted, Gilmore and Bell and Kutak Rock resulted in the misappropriation of millions of dollars of “saved” tax payments that should have been returned to Plaintiffs along with all other affected land owners paying special assessments levied under the General Improvement and Assessment Laws of the State of Kansas.
Further, the suit alleges that the liability faced by many of the defendants is personal:
Because the Wichita Defendants actively participated in the fraud practiced by Defendant City of Wichita, they cannot escape personal liability for the fraudulent actions of the City of Wichita upon Plaintiffs and all other affected land owners paying special assessments.
While there is one named party as plaintiff, the suit alleges that all similarly situated persons have been harmed, and so a class action is appropriate. That would be all property owners who have paid special assessment taxes to Wichita since 2009, including myself.
In this episode of WichitaLiberty.TV: The end of a Sedgwick County Commission election, the Wichita Eagle editorializes on school spending and more taxes, and Wichita Mayor Jeff Longwell seems misinformed on the Wichita economy. View below, or click here to view at YouTube. Episode 207, broadcast August 26, 2018.
A Wichita Eagle editorial argues for higher property taxes to help the city grow.
In a recent op-ed, the Wichita Eagle editorial board writes: “It’s hard to make the argument that Wichitans are overtaxed by their city government. It’s time for the community to look at how it helps the city grow. A responsible plan that asks Wichita families to chip in the cost of a family meal should be part of the conversation.” 1
The argument that a tax increase is only “the cost of a family meal” is weak. (From the editorial: “A 1-mill increase would cost a property owner $11.50 annually for every $100,000 of appraised value of a home.”) In other words, it’s just a little bit. Just one dollar each month. You won’t even notice it.
This is a standard argument made by those who want higher taxes and those who oppose tax cuts. The problem is just that: Everyone makes this argument, and when added together, the nickels and dimes add up to real money.
Besides, there are families in Wichita who have trouble paying for family meals.
Then, there’s the effect on business. An ongoing study reveals that generally, property taxes on commercial and industrial property in Wichita are high. Specifically, taxes on commercial property in Wichita are among the highest in the nation. Commercial property is taxed at 2.180 times the rate as residential property. (The U.S. average is 1.683.) Because Wichita’s ratio is high, it leads to high property taxes on commercial property. 2
Raising taxes on commercial enterprise shifts economic activity from the private sector to government. Citizens may want to ask where money is spent most beneficially.
The Eagle editorial board says higher property taxes could help the city grow. There’s no doubt the city needs help growing. But given the record of our local government leaders — both elected and bureaucratic — it’s difficult to see how giving them more money to spend will help.
As an example of government helping the city grow, consider the Waterwalk development in downtown Wichita. Despite some $41 million in taxpayer subsidy, the development languishes. On top of that, the city doesn’t enforce agreements that might benefit taxpayers. 3
The Wichita Eagle editorialized “Seven years into a project that was supposed to give Wichita a grand gathering place full of shops, restaurants and night spots as well as offices and condos, some City Council members and citizens remain skeptical at best about WaterWalk’s ability to deliver on its big promises. … True, the skepticism to date is richly deserved.” 4
Oh. That editorial was written in 2009, nine years ago. Since then, there has been some improvement, like the Marriott Fairfield Inn and Suites Hotel and the fountain. But, Gander Mountain — the development’s retail anchor — closed.
The present Eagle editorial board calls for a “responsible plan.” But when we see the city spending on things like Waterwalk and then failing to uphold agreements designed to protect taxpayers — well, the city hasn’t been acting responsibly.
Contrast downtown’s Waterwalk with Waterfront, a development at 13th and Webb Road in east Wichita that started around the same time as Waterwalk. There, developers spent millions of their own money to build a beautiful parkway, sewers, traffic lights, and the like. 5
It is at Waterfront where we see large first-class office buildings and small executive offices. It is there we find desirable nationally-known restaurants like Abuelo’s Mexican Food Embassy, Bonefish Grill, PF Chang’s China Bistro, and Red Robin. We also see fine local restaurants like Chester’s Chophouse & Wine Bar. It is at Waterfront we find lodging like Homewood Suites by Hilton, retail stores like Ethan Allen, and the city’s only Whole Foods Market.
All this at Waterfront was done without help from the taxpayers, unlike downtown’s Waterwalk consuming our $41 million. Other popular developments like Bradley Fair and New Market Square were developed with little or no government help.
Even the subsidized “development” that most people agree is a success is not all it’s cracked up to be. That is downtown Wichita, where there has been hundreds of millions in private and public investment over the past decade. The result is that over the same time, business activity in downtown Wichita has been on a downhill trend. The data for 2016 (the most recent year for data) is a bit of good news, with the decline stopping and business activity remaining mostly unchanged. It isn’t the vibrant growth we’ve been told is happening in downtown Wichita, but at least things are not getting worse. 6
So: Do we trust Wichita’s political and bureaucratic leaders to develop a “responsible plan?” Give this record, do we want to shift more resources from the private sector to the government sector?
Competing tax hikes
It’s surprising that the Eagle editorial board would recommend higher property taxes right now. That’s because it’s likely we’ll be asked to approve more taxation, probably soon. There is support among the city’s elite for a renovated or new performing arts and convention center, something that probably can’t be done without more tax revenue. Project Wichita is seen by many as an effort to persuade the region for higher taxes.
Also: In 2014 the steering committee for the Wichita/Sedgwick County Community Investments Plan delivered a report to the Wichita City Council. This report told the council that the “cost to bring existing deficient infrastructure up to standards” is an additional $45 to $55 million per year over current levels of spending. 7
I’m not aware of the city directing additional spending to cure this maintenance gap. As time passes, the gap becomes larger. Although: The city decided to spend an additional $10 million on street repair. But that was a one-time infusion made available when the city sold a capital asset.
This backlog of maintenance is a manifestation of the city not being responsible with assets Wichita taxpayers paid for. And if it is true that we need to spend an additional $45 to $55 million per year, where will the city get those funds? The Eagle urges a one mill property tax increase, which it says means the “city budget would gain $3.5 million to $4 million.” To fix our maintenance backlog would require a property tax increase of over ten mills, if that is how the city decides to raise the funds.
For the first quarter of 2018, the number of jobs in Sedgwick County grew, but at a rate slower than the nation.
Data released today from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, part of the United States Department of Labor shows an improving labor picture in Sedgwick County, but one growing at one-fifth the rate of the nation.
For the first quarter of 2018 there were 12,500 establishments in Sedgwick County employing 247,800 workers. That is an increase in jobs of 0.3 percent from the same time the previous year, a rate which ranked 293 among the nation’s 350 largest counties. For the same period, the national job growth rate was 1.6 percent.
(Ranked by labor force, Sedgwick County is the 120th largest county.)
The average weekly wage was $967, an increase of 2.4 percent over the year, that change ranking 228 among the same 350 largest counties. The U.S. average weekly wage increased 3.7 percent over the same period.
The Wichita Eagle editorial board wants higher taxes. Relying on its data and arguments will lead citizens to misinformed and uninformed opinions.
In a recent op-ed, the Wichita Eagle editorial board writes: “From the moment the budget was first proposed in July, city leaders made a point of emphasizing the city’s mill levy — the rate by which property is taxed — hasn’t been increased in 25 years. The 25-year figure wasn’t followed by exclamation points of pride or emojis of sadness. It’s just a fact: For one reason or another, the city’s mill levy hasn’t been increased.” 1
I guess we shouldn’t be too harsh on the Eagle editorial board. They believed city leaders. And, I suppose the language is correct in one sense: “the city’s mill levy hasn’t been increased.”
But a quick look at readily available data shows that the City of Wichita mill levy has increased, and by quite a bit.
I don’t have data going back 25 years, but I have gathered and prepared data from 1993 to 2017. And during that time, the City of Wichita mill levy rose from 31.290 to 32.667. That is an increase of 4.40 percent.
It is true that the Wichita City Council did not pass an ordinance to cause this mill levy rate to rise. This is where “hasn’t been increased” holds a grain of truth.
Instead, the mill levy rate is set by the county based on the city’s budgeted spending and the assessed value of taxable property subject to City of Wichita taxation. Someone estimates the assessed value of property the city can tax, and that is subject to error.
The city acknowledges this when pressed. It’s on video. 2
But city leaders and elected officials act as though the mill levy is subject to the whims of forces beyond their control.
While the city doesn’t have control over the assessed value of property, it does have control over the amount it decides to spend. As can be seen in the chart of changes in the mill levy, the council’s decisions result in a generally rising mill levy. From 1993 to 2017, there were seventeen years in which the mill levy rose from the previous year, and six years in which it declined.
We have an estimating process that ought to be random — too high in half the years, too low in the other half — overwhelmingly producing higher tax rates. This nearly three-to-one ratio is beyond mere chance or coincidence.
Also, while some may argue that an increase of 4.40 percent over two decades is not very much, this is an increase in a rate of taxation, not tax revenue collected. As property values rise, and as the mill levy rises, property tax bills can rise rapidly.
But it doesn’t seem that the Eagle editorial board understands this, as it wrote: “A 2019 budget can’t be expected to function properly under 1994 tax rates. Nearly everything a city does costs more a quarter-century later.”
True, I suppose. But the data tells us that property tax revenue rises, and rises faster than the rate of inflation, if inflation is what the editorial board means when it writes that things cost more.
In the nearby table, I use a hypothetical $100,000 home and track the taxes paid to the City of Wichita. I use a home price index to track increases in residential home values. I use the Consumer Price Index to adjust dollars for inflation.
In the table, a $100,000 house paid $360 in taxes to the City of Wichita in 1994. In 2017, the same house paid $665. The increase is due to rising property values and the rising mill levy.
Adjusting for inflation to 2017 dollars, the tax paid in 1994 was worth $595. In 2017, the tax was $665, in 2017 dollars, of course.
So from 1994 to 2017, the property tax paid to the City of Wichita by this hypothetical house rose by 11.7 percent, in inflation-adjusted dollars.
When the Eagle editorial board writes “Nearly everything a city does costs more a quarter-century later,” the response ought to be “Yes, but property taxes paid by citizens on their homes are rising faster than inflation.”
This needs to be considered in the light of cuts the city has made and threatens in the future.
For the Wichita metropolitan area in June 2018, jobs are up, the unemployment rate is down, and the labor force is smaller, compared to the same month one year ago.
Data released this week by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, part of the United States Department of Labor, shows an improving employment situation for the Wichita Metropolitan Statistical Area.
The best numbers for Wichita are the total nonfarm employment series, which rose from 294,900 last June to 297,900 this June. That’s an increase of 3,000 jobs, or 1.0 percent. (This data is not seasonally adjusted, so month-to-month comparisons are not valid.)
Of note, the same series of data for the nation rose from 147,578,000 to 150,057,000 over the same time, an increase of 1.7 percent.
The unemployment rate fell to 4.0 percent from a year ago. Part of the improvement in the unemployment rate is due to a slightly smaller labor force.
Considering seasonally adjusted data from the household survey, the labor force rose slightly from May 2018, and employment was unchanged. This is a slowdown of a positive trend in the previous three months.
Three years ago the biggest concern in this community is we need jobs. Jobs, jobs, jobs. And today, we need people. And so keeping Cargill in Wichita and seeing Spirit grow and seeing companies invest is far different than what we had just three years ago when people were so concerned about the opportunity to find meaningful employment in our city.
What the mayor said sounds good. Now. here are statistics from Bureau of Labor Statistics, civilian labor force and nonfarm employment by metropolitan area, seasonally adjusted, for the Wichita Metropolitan Statistical Area:
Civilian labor force: 306,574 (down by 1.5 percent)
Employment: 295,012 (down by 0.42 percent)
Unemployment rate: 3.8 percent (down by 1.0 percentage point, or 20.8 percent)
These are statistics from the Local Area Unemployment Statistics (LAUS) data set, also known as the household survey.
Here are some other statistics, again from Bureau of Labor Statistics, state and area employment, seasonally adjusted, for the Wichita Metropolitan Statistical Area:
Employment: 298,600 (up by 1.0 percent)
These are statistics from the Current Employment Statistics (CES) data set, sometimes called payroll data.
These are two different sets of data. One shows employment rising, and one shows it declining. The difference comes from the fact that one set of data comes from households, and the other from employers. For a full explanation of the data and how there can be these differences, see Visualization: Metro area employment and unemployment.
The important thing is that Mayor Longwell said, in a roundabout way, that there are plenty of jobs in Wichita, and there are not enough workers to fill them.
If there are not enough workers in Wichita, it’s because the labor force (the number of people working plus those looking for work) shrank over the time period the mayor mentioned. That’s why there are not enough people to meet Wichita’s job growth (such as it is).
And while the number of jobs in Wichita rose in the employer survey, it rose by 1.0 percent over three years. The same statistic for the entire United States rose by 5.1 percent over the same period. This doesn’t seem like much of an accomplishment, Wichita growing jobs at a rate one-fifth of the nation.
When the Wichita Regional Chamber of Commerce Political Action Committee endorses a candidate, consider what that means.
If you’ve been following analyst James Chung — and it seems like everyone has — he’s delivered a sobering message: The Wichita economy has not been growing. “[Wichita has been] stuck in neutral for about three decades, with basically no growth, amidst the landscape of a growing U.S. economy,” he said. (In fact, in 2016 the Wichita economy shrank from the previous year, and numbers for 2017 don’t look much better.)
Chung says we need to change our ways. In his June visit he said, and the Chung Report wrote, “Every market signal points to the same conclusion: The manner in which Wichita is operating during this critical point in our history is just not working.”
So what needs to change? Chung won’t say, but here are two things:
First, there are some elected officials and bureaucrats who have presided over the stagnation of Wichita. These people need to go.
That sounds good, but under the hood it’s the same leadership and the same methods, although with a few new hired hands.
So when James Chung (and others) says our manner of operation is not working, it’s the Wichita Chamber of Commerce and its ecosystem that must assume a large portion of blame.
Not only has the Wichita Chamber manner of operation not been working, its leadership hasn’t been working, either. In 2014 the Chamber showed charts of Wichita job growth as compared to the nation and other cities, and Wichita was near the bottom. The Chamber’s response was to advocate for a Wichita city sales tax, some to be used for economic development, but also for water supply enhancement, street repair, and bus transit improvement.
The Chamber managed the political campaign for the sales tax, and in November 2014, 62 percent of Wichita voters said no.
After this, what did the Chamber do? It had told Wichitans that an economic development fund fed by sales tax revenue was essential. Then, the sales tax vote failed. But that isn’t the only way to fund what the Chamber said we needed. The Chamber could have asked the Wichita city council to raise property taxes, and the council could have done that with a simple majority vote of its members. (Since then it has become more difficult, but still possible, to raise local property taxes.)
Or, the city could have raised franchise fees. These are like a sales tax added to utility bills. This could also have been accomplished with a simple majority vote of the council. The council could do it today, if its members wanted to.
None of these possibilities were pursued, at least to my knowledge. The Wichita Chamber of Commerce, after advocating for a sales tax it said was essential, gave up after defeat. It recommended that Wichitans vote to impose a sales tax themselves, but when it came to something it could have accomplished — new taxes through city council votes — the Chamber backed away.
The Chamber then formed the Greater Wichita Partnership. But many of the people who supported the Chamber’s sales tax are directing the operations of GWP, serving its strategic advisory team and the more-exclusive executive board.
This includes the president and CEO of the Wichita Chamber, who was also president during the sales tax campaign.
The Chamber endorsements
So when the Wichita Regional Chamber of Commerce PAC supports candidates, spends money on their behalf, and issues endorsements, what should voters think?
Voters should remember that the Wichita Chamber has presided over the wreckage of the Wichita economy, its leaders still call the shots, and still wants to raise taxes, I believe.
Plus, these people will not accept responsibility for the harm they have caused.
This is a shame, because we want to be proud of our civic leadership. We want to have faith in our elected officials and bureaucrats.
But that isn’t the case in Wichita. Keep this in mind when considering candidates endorsed by the Wichita Regional Chamber of Commerce PAC.