Tag Archives: Wichita city government

Stretching figures strains credibility

I recently read that the Wichita Airport’s economic impact was estimated at $1.6 billion per year. I thought this seemed high, so I investigated further.

I became aware of this study prepared by the Center for Economic Development and Business Research at Wichita State University, available here: Wichita Mid-Continent Airport Economic Impact.

By reading this study I learned that the employees of Cessna and Bombardier — 12,134 in total — are counted in determining the economic impact of the airport. Why? To quote the study: “While it might appear that manufacturing businesses could be based anywhere in the area, both Cessna and Bombardier require a location with runways and instrumentation structures that allow for flights and flight testing of business jet airplanes.” This is true, but it is quite a stretch to attribute the economic impact of these employees to the airport.

For one thing, if we count the economic impact of the income of these employees as belonging to the airport, what then do we say about the economic impact of Cessna and Bombardier? We would have to count it as very little, because the impact of their employees’ earnings has been assigned to the airport. This is, of course, assuming that we count the impact of these employees only once.

Or suppose that Cessna tires of being on the west side of town, so it moves east and starts using Jabara Airport. Would Cessna’s economic impact on Sedgwick County be any different? I think it wouldn’t. But its impact on the Wichita airport would now be zero. Similar reasoning would apply if Cessna built its own runway.

Or it may be that someday Cessna or Bombardier will ask Sedgwick County for some type of economic subsidy, and they will use these same economic impact dollars in their justification. But these dollars will have already been used, as they were attributed to the airport.

To its credit, the WSU study does provide some figures with the manufacturing employees excluded. The impact without the manufacturing employees included is estimated at $183 million, or about 11 percent of the $1.6 billion claimed earlier.

It is a convenient circumstance that these two manufacturers happen to be located near the airport. To credit the airport with the economic impact of these companies — as though the airport was involved in the actual manufacture of airplanes instead of providing an incidental (but important) service — is to grossly overstate the airport’s role and its economic importance.

Of course the airport is important to Wichita. We should seek to measure its impact sensibly instead of stretching to attribute every dollar possible to it. When advocates of any cause manufacture figures like the $1.6 billion economic impact, it casts doubt on other arguments they advance.

Links referred to: Wichita Mid-Continent Airport Economic Impact

The Real Scandal at City Hall

In 2003, local Wichita news media devoted extensive news coverage to two officials in the City of Wichita’s finance department. They were accused of improperly spending between $52,000 and $73,800 on travel. While I don’t condone this waste and I’m glad that our local news media uncovered it, the amount involved is relatively small. Furthermore, the people who wasted this money are no longer in a position to repeat.

The real scandal, however, is the ongoing lack of care exercised when spending our money. Time and time again we read in the newspaper how the mayor or city council members are surprised by facts and circumstances arising after a decision has been made.

For example, in an article titled “Kolb goal: full facts in future city deals” (Wichita Eagle, September 26, 2004) we read this:

“Due diligence should have been done,” Mayor Carlos Mayans said when he learned of the losses: “We expect the staff to provide us with information that helps us make sound decisions.”

In the same article, council member Paul Gray, upon hearing of bad financial news at the city-owned ice rink, is quoted as saying “Why is it just now coming to us?”

Continuing in the same article, council members were described as being surprised upon learning that the industrial revenue bonds and property tax abatement awarded to a local business also included a sales tax break. How could they be surprised? The City of Wichita website contains a nicely-done page titled “Industrial Revenue Bonds” (located at http://www.wichitagov.org/Business/EconomicDevelopment/IRB) (This is the first result that appears when you use the wildly popular Google search engine and search for “Wichita IRB.”) The first link on this page is titled “IRB Overview: Industrial Revenue Bond Issuance in the State of Kansas,” and you don’t have to read very far before you come to the sentence reading “Generally, property and services acquired with the proceeds of IRBs are eligible for sales tax exemption.”

Is it asking too much that someone at City Hall read the City’s own website? Or, is it possible that they knew this, but decided to overlook inconvenient facts?

Recently, in an article titled “Plaza falls short” (Wichita Eagle, November 14, 2004), we read this:

The cinema plaza is the latest in a series of public and public-private projects that have underperformed compared with projections. Others include the Hyatt Regency Wichita, Ice Sports Wichita and Auburn Hills Golf Course.

Mayans said he’s getting tired of such surprises and is working with City Manager George Kolb to make changes.

“We need to find out why we have so many projects (from) previous years that are having financial difficulties,” he said. “From now on, we have to make sure that we are not using anyone else’s numbers and we are doing our own due diligence.”

In fairness to Mayor Mayans, I emphasize that these decisions were made before he took office.

Now as we undertake spending even more money on projects such as the Waterwalk and the downtown Wichita arena, how can we restore confidence in our local government officials?

The best thing to do would be to stop spending on projects that are better handled by the private sector. It seems like the City of Wichita, when partnering with private developers, often assumes most of the risk but is not in position to received the rewards the private developers earn (and rightly deserve to earn) if the project succeeds.

A recent editorial by Phillip Brownlee in the November 21, 2004 Wichita Eagle illustrates the risk involved in these dealings. The editorial, when recommending how to avoid future mistakes like the Old Town Square tax shortfall, states there should be “Better communication between the developers and the city, especially if the project changes.” The key idea in this sentence is change. Things always seem to change. Private developers, being close to the ground and having their own money at risk, sense the need for change earliest. If they are spending their own money, they have the perfect right to change as they see fit. But if they have agreed with the government on a course of action, and now that course needs correction, they have to go back to the government and ask permission to change. That can take a long time — maybe too long to respond adequately to the changing markets.

The editorial also recommends “Clearer expectations (and in writing) about what the developers will build and what occupancy rates likely will be.” First, this sentence illustrates the element of risk again, what the rates likely will be. No one knows. There is risk in developing a business of any type. It seems like the City assumes the risk, however. Also, I am wondering why Mr. Brownlee seems to imply that expectations have not been given in writing. Furthermore, what recourse does the City have if expectations are not met?

Finally, the editorial reads “Closer City Council scrutiny before projects are approved (members at the time now say they didn’t know who all the Old Town development partners were, and they seemed to accept on faith the assurances by city staff that the project would exceed revenue projections).” I first note that it seems like city staff are acting as cheerleaders for these projects, when they should provide a sober assessment. Furthermore, if the project would exceed revenue projections, why not adjust the projections so that they accurately reflect what we believe the future will hold?

The City of Wichita can do a better job. At one time it seemed like our mayor would be better. From an article titled “Mayans takes on WaterWalk” (May 30, 2003 Wichita Business Journal):

One area Mayans says he’s concerned about is a “leasehold mortgage” referred to in the agreement. That means the city is allowing the developer to place a first lien on the ground owned by the city and leased to the developers for the project, Mayans says. Later, the agreement specifies that the city agrees that their ownership of the ground is to be “subordinated” to a loan obtained by the developer to build the improvements.

“If the project is unsuccessful, the lender then has the right to take not only the improvements, but also the city’s land,” Mayans says.

This is the type of thorough analysis and due diligence needed before the City enters into agreements of any type. Why is the city staff not providing this, and why are the Mayor and City Council members not demanding it?

Remarks to City Council, May 11, 2004, Regarding AirTran Airways Subsidy

I delivered these remarks to the Wichita City Council as they were preparing to vote on extending AirTran Airway’s subsidy for another two years. The extension passed with only one dissenting vote.

Mr. Mayor, Members of the Council:

I speak today in opposition to the continuation of the subsidy the City is paying to AirTran Airways.

There are several reasons why I believe this subsidy should not be continued. The primary reason is that the subsidy, since it is paid to one company and one company only, is not fair to the other companies. Yes, it is true that fares are lower. But is that a legitimate reason to enrich one company at the expense of others?

If creating an environment of unfair competition is good and correct, why should we not do this in other markets?

If we feel that gasoline prices are too high, why not select a chain of gasoline stations and pay it a subsidy so that it could lower its prices?

If we feel that a chain of grocery stores has too much market power and their prices are too high, why not create and subsidize stores to compete with them?

If we feel that the commissions that real estate companies charge are too high, why not pay one of Wichita’s major firms a subsidy so that they could reduce their commissions?

Let us all hope, then, that we do not find ourselves running, or being an employee of, a business whose prices the City believes are too high.

But the situation is even worse. Through the Fair Fares program, the City has organized the potential customers of the subsidized business to ensure that they purchase from it. For the companies that pledged to Fair Fares: How would they feel if the government started a public body for the purpose of organizing their customers, and then used its powers of persuasion to compel them to buy from a competitor at the same time the City is subsidizing the competitor?

All of this is in direct opposition to the American principles of limited government, individual liberty, and fair markets.

The distortion of the market that the subsidy creates has another aspect: By creating an environment of unfair competition, we make it unlikely that any airline will consider starting service to Wichita unless they too receive a subsidy.

If the Council feels that we must subsidize an airline, consider this alternative: why not subsidize one of the other established airlines, one that that flies to many destinations? Or, why not rotate the subsidy every year to a different airline? After all, if fares can be lowered if any airline reduces their fares, it shouldn’t matter which airline does it.

The leadership of our local government officials regarding the downtown Wichita arena

It is clear that our local government leaders want a downtown arena in Wichita. Just read their remarks in the Wichita Eaglenewspaper. Since the Sedgwick County Commission has promised that they will proceed with renovation of the Kansas Coliseum if the downtown arena vote fails, it is in their interest to make the Coliseum renovation option look as bad as possible. In my opinion, they’ve done a pretty good job of this.

If you do the math on what it costs to borrow $55 million, paying it back at $6.1 million a year for 20 years, the interest rate is 9.17%, which is a terribly high interest rate for a government to pay. Yet, if we believe the county commissioners, they are ready to pay this much if we don’t agree to the arena.

Arena supporters cite economic benefit to the community as a reason to build the downtown arena, and they concede no such benefit is likely near a renovated Coliseum. Yet they are willing to spend millions there if we don’t give them a downtown arena.

Arena supporters cast the Coliseum renovation in the worst possible light. Consider a homebuyer who just bought a $100,000 home, financing it at 5% for 30 years. The total payments would be about $193,000. Do these people, having just bought the $100,000 home, go about saying they just moved into a $193,000 home? Of course they don’t. The total financed cost, to be sure, is an important fact, and a bad financing decision is a handy fact for arena supporters to use as they portray the Coliseum renovations in the worst possible light.

Arena supporters claim that there are only two decisions, the new downtown arena or the renovation of the Coliseum. Framing the debate this way, especially when one decision outcome is so distasteful, is a good strategy for downtown arena supporters to use, but not good public policy.

The Sedgwick County Commission has said that if the downtown arena fails, Coliseum renovation will start. We, as the citizens of Sedgwick County, should not allow this coercion to affect our decision on the downtown arena. We do not have to stand for this type of bad government.

Local government officials as downtown Wichita arena advocates

Kansas Attorney General Opinion 93-125 deals with “the use of public funds to promote or advocate a governing body’s position on a matter which is before the electorate.” In its summary, it states “However, public funds may be expended to educate and inform regarding issues to be voted on by the electorate.”

Our local government leaders, especially the Sedgwick County Commission and the Mayor of Wichita, are leading what they term the “educational effort” to get out the facts about the proposed downtown arena. I would suggest, however, that their effort is hardly educational, as they readily admit their preference, and little or no information about criticism or alternatives is to be found. On the Sedgwick County website, for example, there are no opposing viewpoints to be found. The only alternative to the downtown arena is the renovation of the Kansas Coliseum, which is portrayed as an unwise choice.

On two television shows, Sedgwick County Commissioner Ben Sciortino wore a “Vote Yea” polo shirt.

From an editorial by Phillip Brownlee, published in the Wichita Eagle on September 5, 2004: “If the plan is to pass, city and county elected officials — supported by business leaders — must continue their strong leadership and high-profile support for the arena.”

It has also been shown that some of the financial contributors to the “Vote Yea” campaign are funded by taxpayers.

A public or private arena in downtown Wichita, which is desirable?

Image what our town could be like if the downtown arena in Wichita vote fails and the county commissioners put aside for a moment their plans for the renovation of the Kansas Coliseum.

Suppose, instead, that arena supporters, along with those who would vote yes for the sales tax and anyone else who wants to, formed a corporation to build and own an arena.

Instead of having paid taxes to government, arena supporters would be investors. They would own something: their shares in the arena. They would have the pride and responsibility that comes with ownership. They would have a financial stake in its success. Even taxpayer-funded arena opponents might see merit in investing in a local business rather than paying taxes.

Instead of politicians and bureaucrats deciding what the people of our town want and need, a privately owned arena would be subject to the guidance and discipline of markets. It would either provide a valuable service to its customers and stay in business, or it would fail to do that and it would go out of business. Governments do not have such a powerful incentive to meet the needs of their constituents.

Instead of the bitter feelings dividing this town over the issue of a taxpayer-funded arena and other perceived governmental missteps, the arena corporation would act in the best interests of its shareholders and customers. Even if it didn’t, it wouldn’t be the public’s business, because after all, the corporation is formed of private individuals investing their own money.

When individuals invest in an arena they are nurturing the virtues of investment, thrift, industry, risk-taking, and entrepreneurship, Wichita having an especially proud tradition of the last. There is nothing noble about politicians spending someone else’s money on projects like a downtown arena, or a renovated Kansas Coliseum for that matter.

At this time in our town we have a chance to let private initiative and free markets work, or we can allow government to continue to provide for us in ways that few seem truly satisfied with. Writing about a public utility in England that was transferred to private enterprise, economist John Blundell observed:

When it was “public” it was very private. Indeed, it was totally captured by a small band of bureaucrats. Even members of Parliament struggled to find out what was going on. No proper accounts were produced, and with a complete lack of market signals, managers were clueless as to the correct course to take. The greatest casualty was a lack of long-term capital investment.

Now it is “private” and very public. Not just public in the sense of open, but also in the sense of accountable directly to its shareholders and customers. Copious reports and accounts are available and questioning citizens will find their concerns taken very seriously indeed.

If we allow the government instead of private enterprise to build a new arena or to renovate the Kansas Coliseum, this is the opportunity we lose.