Tag Archives: Wichita city government

Wichita, Kansas, and U.S. economic dashboards

Dashboards of economic indicators for Wichita and Kansas, compared to the United States.

Example of the Wichita economic dashboard. Click to view.
The Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis gathers economic data from sources like the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics and the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis. This data is then available in an interactive graphing and charting system.

Example of the Kansas economic dashboard. Click to view.
Using this system, I’ve created dashboards (collections of charts) holding economic data for Wichita and Kansas. The charts, as they appear on the dashboard, are static, although they should show the most current data. At the bottom of each chart is the link “View on FRED.” By clicking on that link you gain access to the interactive version of the chart. You may then make many different types of customizations.

Click here for the Wichita dashboard, and click here for the Kansas dashboard.

Other Wichita data

The Center for Economic Growth and Business Research at Wichita State University produces data and forecasts for Wichita and Kansas. It has a dedicated site for these at kansaseconomy.org. Of special interest are these data series, available as tables and charts:

Metro Monitor for the Wichita economy

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

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

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

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

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

Wichita’s productivity ranking is good, also.

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

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

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

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


Notes

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

Real Gross Domestic Product by State and Industry

An interactive visualization of state Gross Domestic Product by industry.

The Bureau of Economic Analysis is an agency of the United States Department of Commerce. BEA describes its role as “Along with the Census Bureau, BEA is part of the Department’s Economics and Statistics Administration. BEA produces economic accounts statistics that enable government and business decision-makers, researchers, and the American public to follow and understand the performance of the Nation’s economy. To do this, BEA collects source data, conducts research and analysis, develops and implements estimation methodologies, and disseminates statistics to the public.”

One series BEA produces is gross domestic product (GDP) by state for 21 industry sectors on a quarterly and annual basis. BEA defines GDP as “the value of the goods and services produced by the nation’s economy less the value of the goods and services used up in production.” It is the value of the final goods and services produced.

In describing this data, BEA says “These new data provide timely information on how specific industries contribute to accelerations, decelerations, and turning points in economic growth at the state level, including key information about the impact of differences in industry composition across states.” This data series starts in 2005. An announcement of the most recent release of this data is here.

I’ve gathered the data for this series for all states and regions and present it in an interactive visualization using Tableau Public. The data is presented in real dollars, meaning that BEA adjusted the numbers to account for changes in the price level, or inflation. This visualization uses annual data.

Tabs along the top of the visualization hold different views of the data. You may select a time period, one or more industries, and one or more states.

Click here to access the visualization. The visualization was created by myself using Tableau Public.

Example from the visualization. Click for larger.

Census data for downtown Wichita workers

Is the presentation of the number of workers in downtown Wichita an innocent mistake, mere incompetence, or a willful lie?

There’s a question regarding how many people work in downtown Wichita, the Wichita Eagle reports.1 Other sources have noticed a discrepancy.2

Promotional material on the former Henry’s building. Click for larger.
At issue is the meaning of “working” in a certain location. Data that the Center for Economic Development and Business Research at Wichita State University supplied to the Wichita Downtown Development Corporation indicates about 26,000 people work in downtown Wichita, for these purposes defined as zip code 67202. This number is used in a wide variety of ways, including in Wichita city budgets and federal grants made by the city.

It’s appropriate, then, to understand what the 26,000 number means. The Eagle article mentions “a likely mistake in how the number of jobs downtown is calculated.”3 The same article quotes Jeremy Hill, director of CEDBR, as saying, “It looks very obvious and plausible that it is an error.”

There is no “mistake” or “error” in this Census data, which is known as LEHD Origin-Destination Employment Statistics, or LODES. But we need to be curious or cautious enough to investigate what this data means. Documentation from the Census Bureau for LODES data gives the definition of the place of work and a cautionary note: “A place of work is defined by the physical or mailing address reported by employers in the QCEW (formerly ES-202) or Multiple Worksite Reports. An address from administrative data may or may not be the actual location that a worker reports to most often.”

The Census Bureau continues with another warning regarding this data: “Nonreporting of multiple worksites is especially common with state and local governments and school districts. In such a case, LEHD infrastructure files assign all workers for that employer (within the state) to the main address provided.”4

In the case of downtown Wichita, the mistake was made in the application of this data, which is the claim that there are 26,000 workers in downtown Wichita. There may be that many people who draw a paycheck from an administrative office located in downtown. But large numbers of these don’t come to downtown to perform their jobs.

Census block 201730043001036, showing 7,740 workers.
The LODES data reports a one square block in downtown that holds 7,740 workers. This is the block that holds the administrative office building for the Wichita public school district. Regarding this, the Eagle article reports: “One of the most likely reasons for the difference, according to multiple local academics, including Hill, is that the Census is reporting that every employee for USD 259 works downtown. Most USD 259 employees work in buildings across the city, but the central office is located downtown.” This is something the Census Bureau warns users to consider.

There’s another area of erroneous application, too, and it isn’t mentioned in the Eagle article. This concerns the second largest concentration of workers in downtown Wichita (according to the LODES data) in a Census block which has 3,437 employees. This is the block that holds Wichita city hall. In 2014 the city had 3,270 employees. But they don’t all work at Main and Central. They’re dispersed throughout the city in police stations, fire stations, and other sites.

How was this missed?

The Census Bureau OnTheMap application for downtown Wichita, zip code 67202. Click for larger.
Nearby is an example of using the Census OnTheMap application.5 This is the source of LODES data that the WDDC cites in its footnotes to its annual report. When using the application for zip code 67202, there are two — and only two — large dark blue dots. These represent the census blocks with the greatest number of workers, 7,740 and 3,437. I’d like to think that if someone at CEDBR, WDDC, or city hall looked at this map and saw those two big blue dots, they might ask a few questions. Wasn’t someone curious as to how a single block of downtown Wichita manages to hold so many employees? Which companies do they work for? What can we learn from the success of these companies that employ so many people? Can we duplicate this success in other parts of downtown?

But I don’t think anyone asked these questions. No one — not at CEDBR, WDDC, or city hall — was inquisitive enough to really look at this data and see what it means. It’s either that or there was a willful misrepresentation.

The Eagle article also reports this: “This won’t make much of a difference to most businesses downtown, according to Hill. They already know how big the market is because they have experience with it. … The best companies will look at census data when coming up with their business plans, Hill said, but every business relies on several numbers, so even if there are thousands of fewer jobs downtown than previously thought, it’s unlikely that it would have much of an impact.”

On these remarks, I would say that first, we’re trying to recruit new businesses to downtown Wichita. It’s those business firms that this data speaks to. While the “best” companies may use other sources of data, I don’t think we want to discriminate. All companies are welcome to Wichita, I hope.

Second, Hill says companies “will look at census data.” Well, this is census data.

Third, Hill says this mistake won’t have “much of an impact.” In the future, I think we’ll need to ask CEDBR, WDDC, and city hall if the data they supply is intended to have an impact, or is it for something else.

Trends of business activity in downtown Wichita. Click for larger.
Fourth, there is other census data. The United States Census Bureau tracks business data by zip code.6 The data that is available includes the number of business establishments, the number of employees, and the annual payroll, expressed in thousands of dollars not adjusted for inflation. It includes private-sector workers only, so it does not count all workers.

Nearby are results for zip code 67202. For 2015 the number of jobs is 13,581, not much more than half of what city leaders have told us. Again, these are private-sector workers only.7

Not only are these numbers much smaller, the results since 2007 show fewer business establishments, fewer people working downtown, and lower earnings generated in downtown Wichita. In all cases, the trend is lower. The LODES data is on a downwards trend, too.


Notes

  1. Morrison, Oliver. How many people work downtown? Fewer than Census says. Wichita Eagle, May 10, 2017. Available at http://www.kansas.com/news/local/article149848144.html.
  2. Weeks, Bob. Downtown Wichita jobs, sort of. Available at https://wichitaliberty.org/wichita-government/downtown-wichita-jobs/.
  3. “But the reason for this is not because 7,000 workers actually will leave but because of a likely mistake in how the number of jobs downtown is calculated.
  4. “For LODES, a place of work is defined by the physical or mailing address reported by employers in the QCEW (formerly ES-202) or Multiple Worksite Reports. An address from administrative data may or may not be the actual location that a worker reports to most often. The distinction of worksite and administrative address may be especially significant in some industries such as construction, where work is often carried out at temporary locations. In some cases, employers do not provide a multiple worksite report when it would be appropriate to do so. Nonreporting of multiple worksites is especially common with state and local governments and school districts. In such a case, LEHD infrastructure files assign all workers for that employer (within the state) to the main address provided. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) data show a national noncompliance rate of 5.61 percent of multiunit employers responsible for about 4.45 percent of multiunit employment.” U.S. Census Bureau. Matthew R. Graham, Mark J. Kutzbach, and Brian McKenzie. Design comparison of LODES and ACS commuting data products. Available at ftp://ftp2.census.gov/ces/wp/2014/CES-WP-14-38.pdf.
  5. U.S. Census Bureau. OnTheMap application. Available at https://onthemap.ces.census.gov/.
  6. U.S. Census Bureau. County Business Patterns (CBP). https://www.census.gov/programs-surveys/cbp/data.html.
  7. Weeks, Bob. Downtown Wichita business trends. Available at https://wichitaliberty.org/wichita-government/downtown-wichita-business-trends/.

Wichita post-recession job growth

Wichita has recovered from recessions, but after the most recent, the city is falling further behind.

Since 1990 the country has experienced three recessions. For the first two of these, Wichita was able to catch up with the employment growth experienced by the entire nation.

For the most recent recession, however, this hasn’t been the case. In fact, as time progressed since 2010, the gap between Wichita and the nation has grown.

Following are three charts of private sector employment for the Wichita metro area and the nation. Each is indexed starting with the end of a recession so that job growth may be compared. Click charts for larger version. You may access and alter the chart here.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

An isolated incident, long ago?

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

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

Except they’re not.

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

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

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

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


Notes

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

Wichita about to commit to more spending. Bigly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Should Wichita do this?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Notes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Notes

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

Growth in Downtown Wichita Jobs

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

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

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

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

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


Notes

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

Downtown Wichita jobs, sort of

The claim of 26,000 workers in downtown Wichita is based on misuse of data so blatant it can be described only as malpractice.

Have you heard that 26,000 people work in downtown Wichita, defined as zip code 67202? It’s likely you have, as this number appears in many places.

It appears in the Wichita city budget.1

Downtown Wichita brochure.
It is cited by our chief economic development agency.2

State of Downtown Report, 2016. Click for larger.
The city’s downtown development agency uses this number in brochures and annual reports.3 4

It appears in a federal grant application made by the city.5

It appears in our state’s largest newspaper, as reported by a journalist billed as a data specialist.6

Promotional material on the former Henry’s building. Click for larger.
It appears in a Wichita specialty business newspaper quoting a Wichita business leader.7

It’s advertised on a vacant downtown building, the former Henry’s store at Broadway and William.

The Wichita Downtown Development Corporation states the data for workers in downtown Wichita, which is defined for these purposes as zip code 67202, comes from the United States Census Bureau, specifically an application called “OnTheMap Application and LEHD Origin-Destination Employment Statistics.”8 The data is commonly known as LODES. Using this application and focusing analysis on zip code 67202 produces the figure 25,850 primary jobs. Round that to 26,000, and that’s the source of the job claims for downtown Wichita.

But: Census documentation for this data gives the definition of the place of work and a cautionary note: “A place of work is defined by the physical or mailing address reported by employers in the QCEW (formerly ES-202) or Multiple Worksite Reports. An address from administrative data may or may not be the actual location that a worker reports to most often.”

The Census Bureau continues with another warning regarding this data: “Nonreporting of multiple worksites is especially common with state and local governments and school districts. In such a case, LEHD infrastructure files assign all workers for that employer (within the state) to the main address provided.”9

Census block 201730043001036
Census block 201730043001036, satellite view.
This is highly relevant and important in the case of downtown Wichita. When using the OnTheMap application for zip code 67202, there are two large bright blue dots that stand out from all others. These represent the two highest concentrations of workers in downtown Wichita. One is Census block 201730043001036, which has 7,740 employees. This is a one square block area from First to Second Streets, and Wichita to Water Streets. The block consists mostly of surface parking lots, although there are three buildings. One building is the Wichita school district administration building, and there’s the problem with the way the city uses this data. The school district has thousands of employees. Only a small fraction, however, work in the downtown administrative building at First and Water Streets. The rest are dispersed throughout the city in school buildings and other sites such as the large facility at 37th Street North and Hydraulic.

But this Census data counts all these employees in one census block. This is an example of the warning the Census Bureau supplies with the data: Nonreporting of multiple worksites is especially common with state and local governments and school districts.

There’s another example. The second largest concentration of workers in downtown Wichita appears in Census block 201730043001023, which has 3,437 employees. This is the block that holds Wichita city hall. In 2014 the city had 3,270 employees. But they don’t all work at Main and Central. They’re dispersed throughout the city in police stations, fire stations, and other sites.

(By the way, the 26,000 number is often qualified as daytime workers. But we know that many police officers and firefighters work at night. The same is true for people working at the many hotels, restaurants, and bars in downtown. They aren’t all daytime workers.)

Here’s something to consider: The Wichita school district is moving its administrative offices to the former Southeast High School building at Lincoln and Edgemoor. That’s in zip code 67218. What will happen to the reporting of jobs in downtown Wichita when some seven thousand workers start receiving their paychecks from an office in that zip code, and the Census Bureau adjusts it data accordingly?

So how many people do actually work in downtown Wichita, zip code 67202? A different set of Census data gives the number 13,593 for 2014.10 This data is much more representative of the number of people actually working in a location, although it includes private-sector workers only. Se we might add a few to that number. But it’s clear that the claim of 26,000 workers is far from true.

We’re told that the city makes decisions based on data and analysis. In the city manager’s policy message in the current city budget, the manager wrote: “In 2016, the City was selected by Bloomberg Philanthropies as a What Works City for making a public commitment to use data for informed decision making.” The same document also states: “Departmental goals and data drive decision making within each department.”

The use of data for decision making is especially important for downtown planning, we’ve been told. In selling the plan for downtown Wichita in 2010, the city’s consultants told us that the plan is “grounded in data and hard analysis.”11 But I showed that data the consultants relied on — a “walk score” — was based on nonsensical data.

We’re left with a few observations:

  • The claim of 26,000 workers in downtown Wichita is true. But as we’ve seen, it is not true in the way it is used, which is as an indication of the number of human beings actually working in downtown.
  • Did the person who gathered this data about downtown workers know what it means? If not, why not?
  • Did the person who decided to use this data in marketing downtown Wichita know what it means? If not, why not?
  • If someone knew the meaning of this data and decided to use it anyway: What does that tell us?
  • Did no one at Wichita city hall look at this data? As I’ve shown, it’s easy to see that the mapping application says 3,437 people work in the block holding city hall. Did no one look at the big blue dot and that number and realize that it is not real?
  • What if you opened a lunch counter in downtown Wichita based on the claim of 26,000 daytime workers, and then you learn there are really only half that many, with some of those working at night?

We want to trust our city leaders. We want downtown Wichita and the entire metropolitan area to succeed so that people may prosper and be happy. But episodes like this destroy trust and breed well-deserved cynicism. We can — we must — do better than this.


Notes

  1. City of Wichita. Proposed Budget 2017 – 2018. Page 2. “Over 26,000 workers also populate downtown every day, working in industries such as education, finance, manufacturing, health care, government, and retail.
  2. Greater Wichita partnership. Living & Working. “With a highly trained pool of talent and a deeply rooted entrepreneurial spirit, Downtown Wichita is work central, boasting 26,000 daytime workers in the financial, healthcare, education, oil & gas and creative services industries.” Available at http://greaterwichitapartnership.org/living_working/downtown_wichita.
  3. Wichita Downtown Development Corporation. Wichita — Center of Progress. Available at http://www.downtownwichita.org/brochure/files/inc/792168633.pdf.
  4. Wichita Downtown Development Corporation. State of Downtown Report 2016. This document states over 25,000 workers. Available at http://downtownwichita.org/user/file/2016_State_of_Downtown_Report_2.pdf.
  5. City of Wichita. Multi-Modal Transportation Connections for Wichita State Innovation Campus. 2016 TIGER Grant Application. Available at http://www.wichita.gov/Government/Departments/Planning/TIGER%20Grant%20Documents/2016%20TIGER%20Grant%20Application.pdf.
  6. Ryan, Kelsey. 9 things happening with Wichita downtown development. Wichita Eagle. June 01, 2015. Available at http://www.kansas.com/news/business/real-estate-news/article22844223.html.
  7. Stearns, John. Downtown’s office exodus — Nearly 1,000 are leaving, so why aren’t downtown developers having a heart attack? Wichita Business Journal. October 4, 2013. Available at http://www.bizjournals.com/wichita/print-edition/2013/10/04/downtowns-office-exodus.html.
  8. U.S. Census Bureau. OnTheMap application. Available at https://onthemap.ces.census.gov/.
  9. “For LODES, a place of work is defined by the physical or mailing address reported by employers in the QCEW (formerly ES-202) or Multiple Worksite Reports. An address from administrative data may or may not be the actual location that a worker reports to most often. The distinction of worksite and administrative address may be especially significant in some industries such as construction, where work is often carried out at temporary locations. In some cases, employers do not provide a multiple worksite report when it would be appropriate to do so. Nonreporting of multiple worksites is especially common with state and local governments and school districts. In such a case, LEHD infrastructure files assign all workers for that employer (within the state) to the main address provided. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) data show a national noncompliance rate of 5.61 percent of multiunit employers responsible for about 4.45 percent of multiunit employment.” Matthew R. Graham, Mark J. Kutzbach, and Brian McKenzie. Design comparison of LODES and ACS commuting data products. Available at ftp://ftp2.census.gov/ces/wp/2014/CES-WP-14-38.pdf.
  10. Weeks, Bob. Downtown Wichita business trends. Available at https://wichitaliberty.org/wichita-government/downtown-wichita-business-trends/.
  11. Weeks, Bob. Some Goody Clancy Wichita findings not credible. Available at https://wichitaliberty.org/wichita-government/some-goody-clancy-wichita-findings-not-credible/.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Block One promotional material. Click for larger.

Downtown Wichita business trends

There has been much investment in Downtown Wichita, both public and private. What has been the trend in business activity during this time?

Trends of business activity in downtown Wichita. Click for larger.
According to the 2016 report from the Wichita Downtown Development Corporation, over the past decade there has been $602 million in private investment and $369 million in public investment in downtown. An additional $190 million investment is in the form of the Intrust Bank Arena. The total, according to WDDC, is $1,161 million.1

What has been the result of this investment? If you expected business growth in downtown Wichita, you may be disappointed.

Business activity in zip code 67202, Downtown Wichita. Click for larger.
The United States Census Bureau tracks business data by zip code.2 The data that is available includes the number of business establishments, the number of employees, and the annual payroll, expressed in thousands of dollars not adjusted for inflation. It includes private-sector workers only, so it does not count all workers.

Nearby are results for zip code 67202, which has nearly the same boundaries as the Self-Supporting Municipal Improvement District (SSMID). This is a district that pays extra property tax for supporting the WDDC. Its boundaries are from Kellogg north to Central, and the Arkansas River east to Washington. It is greater Downtown Wichita plus Old Town.

Zip Code 67202.
The results since 2007 show fewer business establishments, fewer people working downtown, and lower earnings generated in downtown Wichita. In all cases, the trend is lower.

This is movement in the wrong direction, the opposite of progress. There may be good news in that the number of people living downtown may be rising. But business activity is declining.

Trends in business establishments, employment, and payroll for zip code 67202, which is Downtown Wichita. Click for larger.


Notes

  1. Wichita Downtown Development Corporation. State of Downtown Report, 2016. http://www.downtownwichita.org/2016StateofDowntown/?page=1.
  2. U.S. Census Bureau. County Business Patterns (CBP). https://www.census.gov/programs-surveys/cbp/data.html.

Cargill subsides start forming

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

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

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

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

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

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

Not the entire subsidy package

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

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

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


Notes

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

Cash incentives in Wichita, again

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Whatever it is called, this is a cash incentive.

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

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

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

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


Notes

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

Wichita metro employment by industry

An interactive visualization of Wichita-area employment and jobs by industry.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics, part of the United States Department of Labor, makes monthly employment statistics available. I’ve gathered them for the Wichita metropolitan area and present them in an interactive visualization.

This data comes from the Current Employment Statistics, which is a monthly survey of employers asking about jobs.1

The four tabs along the top of the visualization hold different views of the data; one table and three charts. Employment figures are in thousands. All series except one are not seasonally adjusted.

Click here to access the visualization. The visualization was created by myself using Tableau Public.

Example from the visualization. Click for larger.


Notes

  1. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Current Employment Statistics data and their contributions as key economic indicators. www.bls.gov/opub/mlr/2016/article/current-employment-statistics-data-and-their-contributions-as-key-economic-indicators.htm.

During Sunshine Week, here are a few things Wichita could do

The City of Wichita says it values open and transparent government, but the city lags far behind in providing information and records to citizens.

The City of Wichita is proud to be an open and transparent governmental agency, its officials say. Former Mayor Carl Brewer often spoke in favor of government transparency. For example, in his State of the City address for 2011, he listed as an important goal for the city this: “And we must provide transparency in all that we do.”

When the city received an award for transparency in 2013, a city news release quoted Wichita City Manager Robert Layton:

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

Current Mayor Jeff Longwell penned a column in which he said, “First off, we want City Hall to be open and transparent to everyone in the community.” (But he has wondered if the city could conduct business with fewer public hearings.)

But the reality of obtaining information and records from the City of Wichita is far different from the claims of its leaders. Two years ago the city expanded its staff by hiring a Strategic Communications Director. When the city announced the new position, it said: “The Strategic Communications Director is the City’s top communications position, charged with developing, managing, and evaluating innovative, strategic and proactive public communications plans that support the City’s mission, vision and goals.”

But there has been little, perhaps no, improvement in the data and information made available to citizens.

The city’s attitude

Despite the proclamations of mayors and manager, the city needs a change of attitude towards government transparency. Here’s perhaps the most glaring example of how the city goes out of its way to conduct public business in secret.

Citizen watchdogs need access to records and data. The City of Wichita, however, has created several not-for-profit organizations that are controlled by the city and largely funded by tax money. The three I am concerned with are the Wichita Downtown Development Corporation, Visit Wichita (the former Go Wichita Convention and Visitors Bureau), and Greater Wichita Economic Development Coalition, now the Greater Wichita Partnership. Each of these agencies refuses to comply with the Kansas Open Records Act, using the reasoning that they are not “public agencies” as defined in the Kansas law that’s designed to provide citizen access to records.

The city backs this interpretation. When legislation was introduced to bring these agencies under the umbrella of the Kansas Open Records Act, cities — including Wichita — protested vigorously, and the legislation went nowhere.

Recently the City of Wichita added a new tax to hotel bills that may generate $3 million per year for the convention and visitors bureau to spend. Unless the city changes its attitude towards citizens’ right to know, this money will be spent in secret.

Another example of the City of Wichita’s attitude towards citizens and open government took place at a Kansas Legislature committee hearing. I had asked for email to or from a certain official for a certain period of time. The response from the city was that my request would encompass some 19,000 email messages, and the city denied the request as too burdensome. Fair enough.

But Dale Goter, the city’s lobbyist at the time, told legislators that my request for 19,000 emails was an example of abuse of the Kansas Open Records Act, citing it as evidence as to why reform was not needed. But I did not request 19,000 email messages. I made a request for messages meeting a certain criteria, and I had no way of knowing in advance how many email messages this would entail. The City of Wichita denied this request as burdensome, so there was either no cost or very little cost to the city. No harm, no foul.

Still the City of Wichita used this incident — and a similar incident involving the Kansas Policy Institute — as reasons that the Kansas Open Records Act needs no reform. This illustrates a problem with the attitude of Wichita city government towards citizens’ right to know.

This attitude may be noticed by the citizenry at large. Survey respondents were asked to rate “the job Wichita does at welcoming citizen involvement.” The results are shown in the nearby chart created from data in the most recent version of the Wichita Performance Measure Report. The numbers are the percent of respondents giving “excellent” or “good” as their response to the question.

Citizens rate “the job Wichita does at welcoming citizen involvement."
Citizens rate “the job Wichita does at welcoming citizen involvement.”

The report says this performance is “much below” a benchmark set by the National Research Center National Citizen Survey.

Website

An important way governments communicate with their subjects is through their websites. Wichita moved to a new website early in 2013. With the launching of the new City of Wichita website, the city has actually taken a step backwards in providing information to citizens.

Something that had been very useful is missing and hasn’t been replaced: MyWichita.

mywichita_logo

As described here, MyWichita was a useful service. By using it, you could receive email notices of new press releases, city council agendas and minutes, district advisory board agenda and minutes, agendas and minutes of other boards, and other items. Using MyWichita was much easier than having to check multiple sections of the city’s website looking for newly-released agendas, minutes, etc.

This email reminder service was very valuable. It’s a basic customer service feature of many commercial and governmental websites. But MyWichita didn’t survive the conversion to the new website, and there’s nothing that replaces its function. When I asked about this missing functionality, the city said it was working on a replacement that should be available in a month or two. It’s been several years since I asked.

Spending data

Many governmental agencies post their checkbooks on their websites. Sedgwick County does, and also the Wichita school district. Not so the City of Wichita.

Until a few years ago, Wichita could supply data of only limited utility. What was supplied to me was data in pdf form, and as images, not text. It would be difficult and beyond the capability of most citizens to translate the data to a useful format. Even if someone translated the reports to computer-readable format, I don’t think it would be very useful. This was a serious defect in the city’s transparency efforts.

Now, if you ask the city for this data, you’ll receive data in an Excel spreadsheet. This is an improvement. But: You must pay for this data. The city says that someday it will make check register data available. See Wichita check register for the data and details on the request.

Legal notices

Kansas law requires that local government agencies publish legal notices for a variety of topics. Presently these are published in the Wichita Eagle at great cost to taxpayers. These notices could also be published on the city’s website, where they could be searched and archived. This would increase the usability of these documents at very little cost to the city. See Towards government transparency in Wichita: Legal notices.

Publish fulfilled requests

When governmental agencies like the City of Wichita fulfill records requests, they could also publish the records on their websites. Most of the time the records are supplied electronically, so this is an additional simple (and low cost) step that would leverage the value of the city’s effort.

Leveraging our lobbyists

What do lobbyists, including taxpayer-funded lobbyists, do in Topeka? One thing they do is testify before committees, in both verbal and written form. Another thing they do is to prepare reports for the clients, advising them on upcoming legislation, analyzing how it affects them, and what the prospects for the bill might be. They also meet with legislators and their clients, which are your elected officials.

Here’s a proposal that will help citizens make best use of their taxpayer-funded lobbyists:

I see nothing in the Kansas Open Records Act that allows local governmental units in Kansas to refuse to disclose these documents: testimony, reports by lobbyists to their government clients, and the lobbyists’ calendars (or billing records for contract lobbyists). Instead of making citizens ask for these records, possibly paying fees to obtain what they’re already paying for, why don’t local governments post these documents immediately on their websites?

Citizens could then benefit from the activities of the lobbyists they’re paying for. They could learn more about legislation as it works its way through the process. Citizens could judge whether the positions taken by the government lobbyists they’re paying for are aligned with their policy preferences.

If the actions taken by taxpayer-funded lobbyists are truly in the public interest, you’d think that cities, counties, and school boards would already be making this information easily available. In any case, there should be no resistance to starting this program.

Economic development transparency

For several years, the Kansas city of Lawrence has published an economic development report letting citizens know about the activities of the city in this area. The most recent edition may be viewed here.

The Lawrence report contains enough detail and length that an executive summary is provided. This is the type of information that cities should be providing, but the City of Wichita does not do this.

It’s not like the City of Wichita does not realize the desirability of providing citizens with information. In fact, Wichitans have been teased with the promise of more information in order to induce them to vote for higher taxes. During the campaign for the one cent per dollar Wichita city sales tax in 2014, a city document promised this information regarding economic development spending if the tax passed: “The process will be transparent, with reports posted online outlining expenditures and expected outcomes.” (This is what Lawrence has been doing for several years.)

The “Yes Wichita” campaign promised, “Reports will be measured and reported publicly.” (But “Yes Wichita” was a campaign group and not an entity whose promises can be relied on, and can’t be held accountable for failure to perform.)

These are good ideas. The city should implement them even though the sales tax did not pass. If it’s good for citizens to have this type of information if the sales tax had passed, it’s good for them to know in any circumstance, because the city (and other overlapping governmental jurisdictions) still spends a lot on economic development.

Where are our documents?

Government promotes and promises transparency, but finds it difficult to actually provide.

During the campaign for the one cent per dollar Wichita city sales tax in 2014, a city document promised this if the tax passed: “The process will be transparent, with reports posted online outlining expenditures and expected outcomes.” The “Yes Wichita” campaign promised “Reports will be measured and reported publicly.”

Why is this information not available in any case? Is the city’s communications staff overwhelmed and have no time to provide this type of information? During the sales tax campaign Wichita city staff had time to prepare news releases with titles like “City to Compete in Chili Cook-off” and “Jerry Seinfeld Returns to Century II.”

Wichita Facebook page example 2015-09-14 aSince then the city has hired additional communications staff, adding a Strategic Communications Director. Now, while the city’s Facebook page has some useful information, there is also time to promote Barry the Bison playing golf.

Now Wichitans have to wonder: Was transparency promised only to get people to vote for the sales tax? Or is it a governing principle of our city? I think I know the answer.

Here’s an example. A few years ago as Sedgwick County was preparing and debating its budget, I wanted to do some research on past budgets. But on the county’s website, the only budgets available were for this year and last year. There was nothing else.

11-Sedgwick County FinancialsSo I asked for budgets and other financial documents. I received them on CD. Then I created a shared folder using Google Drive and uploaded the documents. Now, these documents are available to the world. They can be found using a Google search. Oh, and here’s something a little ironic. These old budgets had been on the Sedgwick County website at one time. Someone made the decision to remove them.

Creating this depository of budget documents cost nothing except a little bit of time. Well, if you have a lot of data to share, you might have to pay Google a little, like ten dollars per month for each agency or person. But it is so simple that there is no excuse for the failure of agencies like Wichita Transit to make documents like agendas and minutes available. You don’t need specialized personnel to do this work. All you need is the will and desire to make the documents available.

Here’s another example of how simple it can be to achieve transparency. These days live and archived video of governmental meetings is commonplace. Commonplace, that is, except for the Wichita public schools. If you want to see a meeting of the Wichita school board, you must either attend the meetings, or view delayed broadcasts on cable TV. There’s a simple and low-cost way to fix this. It’s called YouTube.

When the Sedgwick County Commission was faced with an aging web infrastructure for its archived broadcasts, it did the sensible thing. It created a YouTube channel and uploaded video of its meetings. Now citizens can view commission meetings at any time on desktop PCs, tablets, and smartphones. This was an improvement over the old system, which was difficult to use and required special browser plug-ins. I could never get the video to play on my Iphone.

Wichita public schools  YouTubeThe Wichita school district could do the same. In fact, the district already has a YouTube channel. Yes, it takes a long time to upload two or three hours of video to YouTube, but once started the process runs in the background without intervention. No one has to sit and watch the process.

I’ve asked why the district does not make video of its meetings available archived online. The district responded that it “has a long-standing commitment to the USD 259 community of showing unabridged recordings of regular Board of Education meetings on Cox Cable Channel 20 and more recently AT&T U-verse Channel 99.” The meetings are broadcast seven times starting the day after each meeting. Two of the broadcasts start at 1:00 am.

Showing meetings delayed on cable TV is okay. It was innovative at one time. But why aren’t meetings shown live? What if you can’t watch the meeting before it disappears from the broadcast schedule after a week? What if you don’t want to pay cable television bills? What if you want to watch meetings on your computer, tablet, or smartphone? I don’t think the fact that meetings are on cable TV means they can’t also be on YouTube.

There are two elements of irony here, if that is the correct term. One is that earlier this year the Wichita school district considered hiring a marketing firm to “gauge its reputation and suggest new branding strategies.” Here’s an idea: Act as though you care about people being able to view the district’s board meetings.

Recently the Wichita school district raised property taxes. The mill levy will rise by 2.86, an increase of about five percent from its present level. The projected cost is an additional $33 per year for a home worth $100.000. That is quite a large increase. That’s bad. What’s also bad is the district’s lack of respect for taxpayers. As I’ve just told you, it’s difficult to view a meeting of the school board, which is a sign that the district prefers to operate in the shadows as much as possible. The board will raise your taxes, and at the same time keep it difficult for you to see them do it.

Just for the sake of completeness, let’s not let the state of Kansas off the hook. Currently, the proceedings of the Kansas Senate and House of Representatives are not available on video. The audio is broadcast on the internet, but it’s live only. No archiving. You must listen live, or figure out some way to record it on your own.

But for eight dollars per month the legislature could make its audio proceedings available to listen to at any time. For eight dollars per month at least one podcast hosting company offers an unlimited plan. Unlimited storage, and unlimited bandwidth. That is just what is needed. And since the audio of the proceedings of the House and Senate is broadcast on the internet, it must pass through a computer somewhere. That computer could also be recording the audio. Once recorded, the process of uploading the audio to the podcast host is a trivial procedure.

But neither Kansas legislative chamber records their proceedings, according to the Secretary of the Senate and the Chief Clerk of the House. I asked. Recordings of sessions are not available because they are not made. It would be simple to record audio of the Kansas House and Senate and make it available for anyone to listen to at any time. It is almost without cost. It would have great benefit.

All these levels of government say they value open records and transparency. But let me ask you: Do you think they really mean it?

In Kansas, the war on property rights

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

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

Wichita business property taxes still high

An ongoing study reveals that generally, property taxes on commercial and industrial property in Wichita are high. In particular, taxes on commercial property in Wichita are among the highest in the nation.

Property taxes in Wichita. Click for larger.
The study is produced by Lincoln Institute of Land Policy and Minnesota Center for Fiscal Excellence. It’s titled “50 State Property Tax Comparison Study, June 2016” and may be read here. It uses a variety of residential, apartment, commercial, and industrial property scenarios to analyze the nature of property taxation across the country. I’ve gathered data from selected tables for Wichita.

In Kansas, residential property is assessed at 11.5 percent of its appraised value. (Appraised value is the market value as determined by the assessor. Assessed value is multiplied by the mill levy rates of taxing jurisdictions in order to compute tax.) Commercial property is assessed at 25 percent of appraised value, and public utility property at 33 percent.

This means that commercial property faces 2.180 times the property tax rate as residential property. The U.S. average is 1.683. Whether higher assessment ratios on commercial property as compared to residential property is desirable public policy is a subject for debate. But because Wichita’s ratio is high, it leads to high property taxes on commercial property.

For residential property taxes, Wichita ranks below the national average. For a property valued at $150,000, the effective property tax rate in Wichita is 1.29 percent, while the national average is 1.43 percent. The results for a $300,000 property were similar. Of note, however, is the property taxes on a median-valued home. In this case Wichita is a bargain, due to our lower housing prices. A home at the median value in Wichita pays $1,552 in taxes, while the nationwide average is $3,097.

Looking at commercial property, Wichita taxes are high. For example, for a $100,000 valued property, the study found that the national average for property tax is $2,351 or 1.96 percent of the property value. For Wichita the corresponding values are $3,398 or 2.83 percent, ranking sixth from the top. Wichita property taxes for this scenario are 45 percent higher than the national average.

For industrial property taxes, the situation in Wichita is better, with Wichita ranking near the middle. For an industrial property worth $1,000,000, taxes in Wichita are $30,980. The national average is $32,445.

Wichita property tax rate: Level

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Application of tax revenue has shifted

Wichita mill levy, percent dedicated to debt service. Click for larger version.
The allocation of city property tax revenue has shifted over the years. According to the 2010 City Manager’s Policy Message, page CM-2, “One mill of property tax revenue will be shifted from the Debt Service Fund to the General Fund. In 2011 and 2012, one mill of property tax will be shifted to the General Fund to provide supplemental financing. The shift will last two years, and in 2013, one mill will be shifted back to the Debt Service Fund. The additional millage will provide a combined $5 million for economic development opportunities.”

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

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

What the city council says

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