The Wichita Eagle’s coverage of the number of workers in Downtown Wichita isn’t fake news, just wrong news.
A recent Wichita Eagle article reported on the number of workers in downtown Wichita, designated as zip code 67202: “The 67202 ZIP code had lost nearly 15 percent of its businesses and 20 percent of its employees in the decade ending in 2015, according to the U.S. Census’s County Business Pattern data. The loss of the State Office Building in 2016 and the Wichita school district’s downtown office this summer — employees are moving to the former Southeast High School — will make that decline steeper.” 1
In the first sentence, the reporter is correct. The trend in the number of business establishments, the number of employees, and the annual payroll is downwards. 2
But the second sentence reveals a misunderstanding of the meaning of two sets of Census Bureau data. According to the Census Bureau’s description of the County Business Pattern data — that’s the data referenced in the article — the two events mentioned will not change the CBP data. That’s because governmental agencies are not included in CPB data. The Census Bureau plainly explains:
“Statistics are available on business establishments at the U.S. level and by State, County, Metropolitan area, ZIP Code, and Congressional District Levels. … CBP covers most NAICS industries excluding crop and animal production; rail transportation; National Postal Service; pension, health, welfare, and vacation funds; trusts, estates, and agency accounts; private households; and public administration. CBP also excludes most establishments reporting government employees.” 3
A second set of Census Bureau data known as LODES will change with the departure of USD 259 from zip code 67202. LODES is the source of 26,000 downtown Wichita workers claimed by Wichita State University’s Center for Economic Development and Business Research, the Wichita Downtown Development Corporation, the Greater Wichita Partnership, the City of Wichita, and other agencies. An earlier Eagle article from May 10 just scratched the surface on this topic. 4 That article described the Census Bureau data as erroneous. But there is no error in the data, as the Census Bureau plainly explains what the data means. 5 The error was in the application of the data by someone who used it to represent something it does not represent.
Readers of the Wichita Eagle may be thoroughly confused by now. Can we expect a correction or explanation? The Eagle says no.
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.
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?
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.
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.
“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. ↩
“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. ↩
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.
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.
Are the City of Wichita’s projections regarding subsidized development as an economic driver believable?
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
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.
“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. ↩
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.
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
It is cited by our chief economic development agency.2
The city’s downtown development agency uses this number in brochures and annual reports.34
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
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
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.
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. ↩
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. ↩
“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. ↩
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.
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.
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.
There has been much investment in Downtown Wichita, both public and private. What has been the trend in business activity during this time?
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.
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.
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.
“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.”
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.
The report says this performance is “much below” a benchmark set by the National Research Center National Citizen Survey.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
Since 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.
So 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.
The 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?
There’s been much investment in downtown Wichita, we’re told, but the assessed value of property isn’t rising.
Wichita city leaders have promoted public investment in downtown Wichita as wise because it will increase the tax base. Over the past ten years, we’re told that there has been one billion dollars in investment in downtown Wichita, including projects in progress.1
To evaluate the success of the city’s efforts, we might look at the change in assessed property valuation in downtown Wichita over past years. A way to do that is to look at the valuations for property in the Wichita downtown self-supporting municipal improvement district (SSMID). This is a region of the city that pays an additional property tax to fund the activities of the Wichita Downtown Development Corporation. Its boundaries are roughly the Arkansas River east to Washington, and Kellogg north to Central.
Assessed valuation is the basis for levying property tax. The process starts with an appraised value, which is targeted to be fair market value for the property, or for commercial property sometimes an income-based method is used. Then, that is multiplied by 25 percent for commercial property, or by 11.5 percent for residential property. This produces the assessed value. Multiply that by the sum of the several mill levy rates that apply to the property, and you have the total property tax for that property.
With all the new projects coming online in downtown Wichita, we should expect that the assessed valuation is rising. As someone converts an old, dilapidated property into something more valuable, appraised and assessed values should rise. As new buildings are built, new appraised and assessed value is created where before there was none (or very little).
So what has happened to the assessed valuation of property in downtown Wichita, using the SSMID as a surrogate?
The answer is that after a period of increasing values, the assessed value of property in downtown has been declining. The peak was in 2008. The nearby table holds the figures.
This is the opposite of what we’ve been promised. We’ve been told that public investment in downtown Wichita builds up the tax base.
Some might excuse this performance by noting there’s been a recession. That’s true. But according to presentations, there has been much activity in downtown Wichita. Hundreds of millions of dollars over the last ten years, we are told.
A few years ago the city said that the decline was due to the legislature exempting business equipment and machinery from the property tax rolls. Undoubtedly this was true when the law took effect, which was in 2006. It could also explain the some of the drop for a few years after that.
But for the last several years this factor is gone. At any rate, I believe its effect was small compared to the value of real property.
Also: How how does the assessed valuation in the SSMID compare to the city as a whole? Nearby is a chart of the percent change in assessed valuation for each year, comparing the SSMID with the city as a whole less the SSMID. In other words, Wichita minus downtown. The SSMID is underperforming the city.
So why isn’t the assessed valuation rising? Why is it falling during the time of huge successes?
I don’t have enough data to answer this question. But we need to know.
In this episode of WichitaLiberty.TV: Was it “Trump” or “Bernie” that incited a fight, and how does the Wichita Eagle opine? Economic development in Wichita. Blight and property rights. Teachers unions. Explaining capitalism. View below, or click here to view at YouTube. Episode 117, broadcast April 24, 2016.
State and local leaders need to help meet Cargill’s needs2
The second headline was in response to the news story “Cargill plans to move its Wichita headquarters — but where?” 3 In this story, Carrie Rengers reports “Cargill is looking to move its Wichita headquarters, but whether that’s within downtown, where it already is, or outside of it or even outside of Kansas is unclear. … City and state officials are working in full gear to make sure Wichita — downtown specifically — is the option Cargill selects.”
Rengers reports that Wichita city officials say no specific incentives have been offered to Cargill, but “any incentives likely would involve infrastructure help, such as with parking, or assistance with easing the process for a new building, such as with permitting.” Wichita Mayor Jeff Longwell says “cash incentive won’t be an option,” according to Rengers.
A Cargill official says that the company needs to attract millennials and younger people, who are not attracted to “traditional office space and office-type buildings.”
Now, consider the first opinion headline: “Investment in downtown Wichita is impressive.” In this op-ed, Phillip Brownlee writes “It’s encouraging that investment in downtown Wichita is continuing — and that it is mostly privately funded. A vibrant downtown is important to the city’s image and to attracting and retaining young adults. More than $1 billion in private and public investment has occurred downtown in the past decade. About $675 million of that investment has been privately funded, and $411 million has been public projects, according to Wichita Downtown Development Corp.”
Brownlee goes on to note other investments, such as 800 new apartment units “in the works.”
On the importance of downtown, Brownlee writes “City leaders have long recognized the value of a healthy downtown. Besides the symbolic importance of not having a lot of empty buildings, many young adults prefer an urban environment. That makes downtown important even for businesses not located there, because it can help or hurt their ability to recruit and retain young professionals.”
I see a discontinuity. Our city’s leaders — opinion, elected, and bureaucratic — brag about all the investment in downtown Wichita, public and private, yet it doesn’t seem to be enough to retain a major Wichita employer in downtown.
At least editorialist Rhonda Holman recognizes the problem in her column: “It’s concerning that Cargill’s stated intentions to relocate and consolidate have not included a commitment to remain downtown or even in Wichita or Kansas.” What is her solution? “Elected and business leaders need to be creative and assertive in helping Cargill meet its needs.”
I share Holman’s concern. It’s very troubling that with $411 million in private investment over the past decade, downtown Wichita still isn’t attractive enough to retain Cargill, if the company’s intent to move is real and genuine. And advising the same group of people who have been in power during the decline of the Wichita economy to be “creative and assertive” is a solution?
One of the things that may be offered to Cargill, according to Rengers, is “assistance with easing the process for a new building, such as with permitting.” This is a big red flag on a very tall flagpole. If the city has regulations so onerous that they are a consideration as to whether to locate in Wichita, this is something that must be fixed immediately. But the instinct of the Wichita City Council and city bureaucrats is to create more regulations covering everything from the striping of parking lots to the personal hygiene of taxi drivers.
Mayor Longwell says there will be no cash incentives offered to Cargill. Instead, something like help with parking may be offered. This might take the form of building a parking garage for Cargill. We should ask: What is the difference between giving cash to Cargill and building a parking garage for Cargill’s use? There really isn’t a meaningful difference, except for Cargill. That’s because cash incentives are taxable income. Free use of a parking garage isn’t taxable. 45
Further, Cargill may qualify for PEAK, or Promoting Employment Across Kansas.6 This program allows companies to retain 95 percent of the payroll withholding tax of employees. The original intent of this program was to lure companies to locate in Kansas, but in recent years the program has been expanded to include incentivizing companies to remain in Kansas. While this is a state program and not a city program under the mayor’s control, PEAK benefits are more valuable than cash.
In this episode of WichitaLiberty.TV: There are things simple and noncontroversial that the Kansas Legislasture should do in its upcoming session, and some things that won’t be easy but are important. Also, a look at eminent domain. View below, or click here to view at YouTube. Episode 106, broadcast January 3, 2016.
A new law in Kansas may provide opportunities for better enforcement of the Kansas Open Records Act.
This year the Kansas Legislature passed HB 2256, captioned as “An act concerning public bodies or agencies; relating to the state of Kansas and local units of government; providing certain powers to the attorney general for investigation of violations of the open records act and the open meetings act; attorney general’s open government fund …”
The good part of this law is that it provides additional enforcement options when citizens feel that government agencies are not complying with the Kansas Open Records Law. Before this law, citizens and news organizations had — effectively — two paths for seeking enforcement of KORA. One is private legal action at their own expense. The other is asking the local district attorney for an opinion.
Now the Kansas Attorney General may intervene, as noted in the summary of the new law: “The bill allows the Attorney General to determine, by a preponderance of the evidence after investigation, that a public agency has violated KORA or KOMA, and allows the Attorney General to enter into a consent order with the public agency or issue a finding of violation to the public agency prior to filing an action in district court.”
Not all aspects of this bill are positive, as it also confirms many exceptions to the records act and adds to them. It also adds to the authority of the Attorney General, as have other bills this year.
The City of Wichita has been obstinate in its insistence that the Kansas Open Records Act does not require it to fulfill certain requests for records of spending by its subordinate tax-funded agencies. The city believes that certain exceptions apply and allow the city to keep secret records of the spending of tax funds. The city may be correct in its interpretation of this law.
But the law — even if the city’s interpretation is correct — does not prohibit the city from releasing the records. The city could release the records, if it wanted to.
Fulfilling the legitimate records requests made by myself and others would go a long way towards keeping promises the city and its officials make, even recent promises.
The city’s official page for the mayor holds this: “Mayor Longwell has championed many issues related to improving the community including government accountability, accessibility and transparency …”
During the recent mayoral campaign, Longwell told the Wichita Eagle that he wants taxpayers to know where their money goes: “The city needs to continue to improve providing information online and use other sources that will enable the taxpayers to understand where their money is going.”
In a column in the Wichita Business Journal, Wichita Mayor Jeff Longwell wrote: “First off, we want City Hall to be open and transparent to everyone in the community.”
Following, from 2012, discussion of problems with the City of Wichita and open government.
Wichita, again, fails at open government
The Wichita City Council, when presented with an opportunity to increase the ability of citizens to observe the workings of the government they pay for, decided against the cause of open government, preferring to keep the spending of taxpayer money a secret.
In the past I’ve argued that Go Wichita is a public agency as defined in the Kansas Open Records Act. But the city disagreed. And astonishingly, the Sedgwick County District Attorney agrees with the city’s interpretation of the law.
So I asked that we put aside the law for now, and instead talk about good public policy. Let’s recognize that even if the law does not require Go Wichita, WDDC, and GWEDC to disclose records, the law does not prohibit them from fulfilling records requests.
Once we understand this, we’re left with these questions:
Why does Go Wichita, an agency funded almost totally by tax revenue, want to keep secret how it spends that money, over $2 million per year?
Why is this city council satisfied with this lack of disclosure of how taxpayer funds are spent?
For that matter, why isn’t Wichita’s check register online?
It would be a simple matter for the council to declare that the city and its taxpayer-funded partner agencies believe in open government. All the city has to have is the will to do this. It takes nothing more.
Only Wichita City Council Member Michael O’Donnell (district 4, south and southwest Wichita) gets it, and yesterday was his last meeting as a member of the council. No other council members would speak up in favor of citizens’ right to open government.
But it’s much worse than a simple failure to recognize the importance of open government. Now we have additional confirmation of what we already suspected: Many members of the Wichita City Council are openly hostile towards citizens’ right to know.
He added that this is a matter for the Attorney General and the District Attorney, and that not being a lawyer, she shouldn’t be expected to understand these issues. He repeated the pawn theme, saying “Unfortunately there are occasions where some people want to use great people like yourself and [Wichita Downtown Development Corporation President] Jeff Fluhr as pawns in a very tumultuous environment. Please don’t be deterred by that.”
Mayor Brewer added “I would have to say Pete pretty much said it all.”
We’ve learned that city council members rely on — as Randy Brown told the council last year — facile legal reasoning to avoid oversight: “It may not be the obligation of the City of Wichita to enforce the Kansas Open Records Act legally, but certainly morally you guys have that obligation. To keep something cloudy when it should be transparent I think is foolishness on the part of any public body, and a slap in the face of the citizens of Kansas. By every definition that we’ve discovered, organizations such as Go Wichita are subject to the Kansas Open Records Act.”
But by framing open government as a legal issue — one that only lawyers can understand and decide — Wichita city government attempts to avoid criticism for their attitude towards citizens.
It’s especially absurd for this reason: Even if we accept the city’s legal position that the city and its quasi-governmental taxpayer-funded are not required to fulfill records request, there’s nothing preventing from doing that — if they wanted to.
In some ways, I understand the mayor, council members, and bureaucrats. Who wants to operate under increased oversight?
What I don’t understand is the Wichita news media’s lack of interest in this matter. Representatives of all major outlets were present at the meeting.
I also don’t understand what Council Member Lavonta Williams (district 1, northeast Wichita) suggested I do: “schmooze” with staff before asking for records. (That’s not my word, but a characterization of Williams’ suggestion made by another observer.)
I and others who have made records requests of these quasi-governmental taxpayer-funded organizations have alleged no wrongdoing by them. But at some point, citizens will be justified in wondering whether there is something that needs to be kept secret.
The actions of this city have been noticed by the Kansas Legislature. The city’s refusal to ask its tax-funded partners to recognize they are public agencies as defined in the Kansas Open Records Act is the impetus for corrective legislation that may be considered this year.
Don’t let this new law be known as the “Wichita law.” Let’s not make Wichita an example for government secrecy over citizens’ right to know.
Unfortunately, that bad example has already been set, led by the city’s mayor and city council.
As part of a plan for spending a dedicated tax revenue stream, the Wichita city council should include disclosure of spending. It would fulfill a campaign promise.
When the City of Wichita collects money through taxation, citizens have the right to know how it is spent. For the city, it is possible to view every check that is written, although the city is not able to supply this information in machine-readable form. But it is available.
But when the city establishes non-profit corporations that are funded totally, or nearly totally, with taxes, different rules apply, says the city: Spending does not have to be disclosed.
This is contrary to the spirit of the Kansas Open Records Act, which opens with the preamble “It is declared to be the public policy of the state that public records shall be open for inspection by any person unless otherwise provided by this act, and this act shall be liberally construed and applied to promote such policy.”
This week the city council will consider a scope of services and budget agreement with its convention and visitors bureau. This year that agency is receiving the proceeds of a new 2.75 percent tax on hotel bills. City documents indicate this tax is expected to raise $2.7 million annually. When added to other tax funds the convention and visitors bureau receives, its budget is some $5 million per year.
But none of this money is subject to the same disclosure as regular city spending.
During the recent mayoral campaign, candidate Jeff Longwell wrote this in response to a question for the Wichita Eagle voter guide: “The city needs to continue to improve providing information online and use other sources that will enable the taxpayers to understand where their money is going.”
Now Wichita mayor, Longwell has an opportunity to implement a campaign promise. It would be simple to do. All the council needs to do is insist that the convention and visitors bureau agree that it is what the law says it is: An agency funded nearly totally by taxes, which means it is a public agency that falls under the scope of the Kansas Open Records Act.
An incentives agreement the Wichita city council passed on first reading is missing several items that city policy requires. How the council and city staff handle the second reading of this ordinance will let us know for whose interests city hall works: citizens, or cronies.
My presentation centered on the lack of an agreement by the developer to forgo appeals of the tax valuation of the property. The applicant had done this in the past, and it caused a shortfall of TIF revenue that the city had to makeup. The city manager had said that taxpayers would be protected in future deals, but the city did not include this protection in the Mosely agreement.
The omission of this taxpayer protection was not all that was missing. The Downtown Development Incentives Policy, revised by the council on June 10, 2014, calls for several items to be supplied when seeking incentives, including tax increment financing, which was the incentive requested for the Mosely project. As I show below, many significant items related to taxpayer protection were missing.
The council approved the project on first reading, noting that the development agreement would be finalized in time for second reading.
This is insufficient. The second reading of an ordinance is usually handled as part of the consent agenda. This is a grouping of items that are voted on as a group, in bulk. There is no discussion unless a council member specifically requests. The practice of the city is that the text of the ordinances on second reading is not made available in the agenda packet, even though changes may have been made between first reading and second reading. That will certainly be the case with this ordinance, as many things are missing from the development agreement.
It’s not clear why there is a first reading and a second reading of an ordinance. It may be so that details may be corrected. Or, perhaps council members would like to have a chance to reconsider their first vote. City code seems to give no guidance as to how much change to an ordinance is allowable between first and second reading.
The problem we face in Wichita is that the approval of a development plan in a TIF district has a mandated public hearing. It is not optional. But the motion passed by the council this week closed the public hearing. Yet, the city will need to make substantial changes to the ordinance and development agreement if it intends to follow the downtown incentives policy that it created. But the public will have no chance to comment on the new material. If past city practice is followed, the new material will not be made available to the public, and perhaps not to council members.
This is a conflict that I do not believe can be resolved unless the city reopens the public hearing for consideration of the revised ordinance and developer agreement on first reading. Anything else disrespects procedures that are designed to benefit and protect the public.
Except. As with many city council policies, there are loopholes. As outlined below, the council can simply vote to waive the requirements of the downtown incentives policy. That gives the council an easy out. But that makes another mockery of the city’s policies, if the council waives them whenever they are inconvenient.
When I presented the defect in the development agreement to the council I asked: Is this lack of taxpayer protection an oversight, or is it by design? There was no answer.
I did not ask this question, but didn’t any city council member notice the omission of significant items needed to comply with its own policies? What about the city manager? Economic development director? City attorney?
Section D of the incentives policy states “parties requesting Downtown Development Incentives must submit the information listed below.” Significant missing items included the following:
CEDBR Fiscal Impact Model
The idea behind the city’s use of economic development incentives is that the city receives more than it spends or forgoes in future tax revenue. An analysis performed by the Center for Economic Development and Business Research (CEDBR) at Wichita State University is used to make this decision. This appears to have not been done for this project.
Guarantee for a proportional share of public revenue shortfall
This was not present in the developer agreement.
Economic analysis confirms that the project is infeasible “but for” public investment
This was not present in the developer agreement.
Minimum private to public capital investment ratio of 2 to 1
Information necessary to make this judgment was not included in the agenda presentation.
The incentives policy states: “Pro Forma — The project pro forma will be evaluated on the following criteria:
a. Rate of private investment return
b. Rents/prices consistent with performance of comparables
c. Projected rate of absorption consistent with performance of comparables
d. Long-term project solvency”
It appears that this analysis was not performed.
“Gap” Financing Requirement
The downtown incentives policy states: “Approval of Downtown Development Incentives will require a financial analysis demonstrating that the project would not otherwise be possible without the use of the requested development incentive (“gap” analysis). Parties requesting Downtown Development Incentives will be required to provide the City pro forma cash flow analyses and sources and uses of funds in sufficient detail to demonstrate that reasonably available conventional debt and equity financing sources are not available to fund the entire cost of the project and still provide the developer a reasonable market rate of return on investment.”
There is no evidence that this analysis was performed and made available to the council.
The incentives policy contains a loophole. If the council believes it is “inappropriate to evaluate a particular request for Downtown Development Incentives” using the policy, it may vote to waive the requirements.
These agencies spend considerable sums of tax money. This week the city will consider funding Go Wichita with a budget of $2,356,851 for 2015. That is not all the taxpayer money this agency will spend, as earlier this year the council voted to increase the city’s hotel tax by 2.75 cents per dollar, with the proceeds going to Go Wichita. City documents indicate that tax is estimated to generate $2.3 million per year.
That is a lot of tax money, and also a high proportion of the agency’s total funding. According to the 2012 IRS form 990 for Go Wichita, the organization had total revenue of $2,609,545. Of that, $2,270,288 was tax money from the city. That’s 87 percent taxpayer-funded. When the surge of higher hotel tax money starts flowing in, that percent will undoubtedly rise, perhaps to 93 percent or more.
Despite being nearly totally funded by taxes, Go Wichita refuses to supply spending records. Many believe that the Kansas Open Records Act requires that it comply with such requests. If the same money was being spent directly by the city, the records undoubtedly would be supplied.
The lack of transparency at Go Wichita is more problematic than this. Earlier this year Go Wichita refused to provide to me its contract with a California firm retained to help with the re-branding of Wichita. When the Wichita Eagle later asked for the contract, it too was refused. If the city had entered into such a contract, it would be a public record. Contracts like this are published each week in the agenda packet for city council meetings. But Go Wichita feels it does not have to comply with simple transparency principles.
The City of Wichita could easily place conditions on the money it gives to these groups, requiring them to show taxpayers how their tax dollars are being spent. But the City does not do this. This is not transparency.
In the past I’ve argued that Go Wichita is a public agency as defined in the Kansas Open Records Act. But the city disagreed. And astonishingly, the Sedgwick County District Attorney agreed with the city’s interpretation of the law.
So let’s talk about good public policy. Let’s recognize that even it is the case that the Kansas Open Records Act does not require Go Wichita, WDDC, and GWEDC to disclose records, the law does not prohibit or prevent them from fulfilling requests for the types of records I’ve asked for. Even if the Sedgwick County District Attorney says that Go Wichita is not required to release documents, the law does not prevent the release of these records.
Once we understand this, we’re left with these questions:
Why does Go Wichita want to keep secret how it spends taxpayer money, as much as $4.6 million next year?
Why is this city council satisfied with this lack of disclosure of how taxpayer funds are spent? Many council members have spoken of how transparency is important. One said: “We must continue to be responsive to you. Building on our belief that government at all levels belongs to the people. We must continue our efforts that expand citizen engagement. … And we must provide transparency in all that we do.” That was Mayor Brewer speaking in his 2011 State of the City address.
It would be a simple matter for the council to declare that the city and its taxpayer-funded partner agencies believe in open government. All the city has to have is the will to do this. It takes nothing more. It costs the city and its agencies nothing, because the open records law lets government charge for filling records requests. I would ask, however, that in the spirit of open transparent government, in respect for citizens’ right to know how tax funds are spent, and as a way to atone for past misdeeds, that Go Wichita fulfill records requests at no charge.
Does the Wichita Metro Chamber of Commerce support free markets, capitalism, and economic freedom, or something else?
Very often, local chambers of commerce support crony capitalism instead of pro-growth policies that allow free enterprise and genuine capitalism to flourish.
We saw this in Wichita this year, where the Wichita Metro Chamber of Commerce campaigned for a sales tax increase. The Chamber recommended that Wichitans vote in favor of a sales tax of one cent per dollar, with some of the proceeds to be dedicated for a jobs fund. (Other uses were to be for a new water supply, expanded bus transit, and accelerated neighborhood street repair.) Chamber leaders told the Wichita city council that if the jobs fund was not included in the package presented to voters, the Chamber would not support the sales tax.
Not long ago the Wichita Chamber was opposed to higher sales taxes. In March 2010, as chair of the Wichita Chamber, Sam Williams submitted a letter to the Wichita Eagle in which he wrote “Tax increases and government spending will not create employment or revive the state’s economic engine. Increasing the costs of goods and services will only lead to fewer purchases, more business closures, higher unemployment and less taxes being paid.”
In April of same year, he wrote again to the Eagle, advising Wichitans this: “Simply put, raising taxes hurts business, costs jobs and ultimately leads to fewer taxpayers and fewer taxes being paid to fund state and local government.”
Having espoused these anti-tax sentiments just four years ago, it’s curious that the Wichita Chamber would support and campaign for a sales tax for Wichita this year. This spills over to mayoral politics. As far as I saw, Sam Williams, — the Chamber’s chair in 2010 — did not take a public position on the sales tax this year. Except for this: Williams is chair of the Wichita Downtown Development Corporation, and that organization endorsed the sales tax.
Regarding mayoral politics: Did you know that Sam Williams is running for mayor? And that it appears he has the support of the Wichita Chamber?
I have a request. If you see Sam Williams, would you ask him about his position on raising sales taxes?
Your chamber of commerce
Most people probably think that local chambers of commerce — since their membership is mostly business firms — support pro-growth policies that embrace limited government and free markets. But that’s usually not the case. Here, in an excerpt from his article “Tax Chambers” economist Stephen Moore explains:
The Chamber of Commerce, long a supporter of limited government and low taxes, was part of the coalition backing the Reagan revolution in the 1980s. On the national level, the organization still follows a pro-growth agenda — but thanks to an astonishing political transformation, many chambers of commerce on the state and local level have been abandoning these goals. They’re becoming, in effect, lobbyists for big government.
In as many as half the states, state taxpayer organizations, free market think tanks and small business leaders now complain bitterly that, on a wide range of issues, chambers of commerce deploy their financial resources and lobbying clout to expand the taxing, spending and regulatory authorities of government. This behavior, they note, erodes the very pro-growth climate necessary for businesses — at least those not connected at the hip with government — to prosper. Journalist Tim Carney agrees: All too often, he notes in his recent book, “Rip-Off,” “state and local chambers have become corrupted by the lure of big dollar corporate welfare schemes.”
In the states, chambers have come to believe their primary function is to secure tax financing for sports stadiums, convention centers, high-tech research institutes and transit boondoggles. Some local chambers have reportedly asked local utilities, school administrators and even politicians to join; others have opened membership to arts councils, museums, civic associations and other “tax eater” entities.
“I used to think that public employee unions like the NEA were the main enemy in the struggle for limited government, competition and private sector solutions,” says Mr. Caldera of the Independence Institute. “I was wrong. Our biggest adversary is the special interest business cartel that labels itself ‘the business community’ and its political machine run by chambers and other industry associations.”
From Stephen Moore in the article “Tax Chambers” published in The Wall Street Journal February 10, 2007. The full article can be found here.
The Wichita city council has been busy with economic development items, and more are upcoming.
At the November 25 meeting of the Wichita City Council, on the consent agenda, the council passed these items.
Approved a sublease in a warehouse. This action was necessary as the incentivized warehouse pays no property taxes due to a subsidy program. Given tax costs and industrial building rents, this policy gives these incentivized buildings a cost advantage of about 20 to 25 percent over competitors. That’s very high, and makes it difficult for existing buildings to compete. This lease is for 40,500 square feet for annual rent of $196,425.00, which is $4.85 per square foot. Competing warehouse space might be able to charge rent of $4.25 plus property tax of about $1.00, for a total rent of $5.25 per square foot to the tenant. In the case of the subsidized building, the landlord collects $4.85 instead of $4.25, and the tenant pays $4.85 instead of $5.25. Everyone’s happy. Everyone, that is, except for existing industrial landlords in Wichita — especially those with available space to rent — who must be wondering why they attempt to stay in business when city hall sets up subsidized competitors with new buildings and a large cost advantage. Then, other commercial tenants must be wondering why they don’t get discounted rent. Taxpayers must be wondering why they have to make up the difference in taxes that the subsidized tenants aren’t paying. (On second thought, these parties may not be wondering about this, as we don’t have a general circulation newspaper or a business newspaper that cares to explain these things.) See Wichita speculative industrial buildings.
Set January 6 as the date for a public hearing on a TIF district project plan. This is the plan for Union Station in downtown Wichita. The public hearing for the formation of its tax increment financing district has already been held, and it passed. The project plan will consider and authorize the actual project and spending of taxpayer funds to reimburse the developer for various items. Unlike the formation of the TIF district, the county and school district have no ability to object to the project plan.
Set December 16 as the date for the public hearing on the formation of a community improvement district. This district is for the benefit of the River Vista project, the proposed apartments on the west bank of the Arkansas River between Douglas and First streets. CIDs redirect sales tax revenue from general government to the developers of the project. Say, does anyone remember Charter Ordinance No. 144, which says this land “shall be hereafter restricted to and maintained as open space”? See In Wichita, West Bank apartments seem to violate ordinance.
On its December 2 agenda, the council has these items:
Property tax and sales tax exemptions for Bombardier Learjet. The council may grant property tax discounts worth as much as $268,548 per year for up to ten years, according to city documents. This will be split among taxing jurisdictions as follows: City $72,389, State $3,340, County $65,415, and USD 259 $127,404. The purchased items may also receive an exemption from sales tax, but city documents give no amount. Bombardier boasts of “Investing in the communities where we do business to ensure we have strong contexts for our operations” and “We support our home community through donations, sponsorships and our employee volunteering program.” Evidently this commitment to investment and support does not extend to shouldering the same tax burden that everyone else does.
Property tax exemptions for Cessna Aircraft Company. The council may grant property tax discounts worth as much as $302,311 per year for up to ten years, according to city documents. This will be split among taxing jurisdictions as follows: City $81,491, County $73,639, State $3,760, and USD 259 $143,421. Generally, items purchased with proceeds of the IRB program also receive sales tax exemption, but city documents do not mention this. Cessna speaks of its commitment to the communities where it operates, but evidently this commitment does not extend to shouldering the same tax burden that everyone else does.
Property tax exemptions for High Touch. This is an extension of tax breaks first granted last year. See In Wichita, the case for business welfare. Did you know the CEO of this company is also chair of the Wichita Metro Chamber of Commerce? And that while campaigning for higher sales taxes in Wichita, including higher taxes on groceries for low-income households, he sought and received a sales tax exemption for his company?
Forgivable loan to Apex Engineering International. The Wichita Eagle reported that this company “has been growing briskly and adding employees.” Still, the company seeks incentives, in this case a forgivable loan from the city of $90,000. It will ask Sedgwick County for the same amount. These loans are grants of cash that do not need to be repaid as long as goals are met. Three years ago Apex received $1,272,000 in tax credits and grants under programs offered by the State of Kansas. It is not known at this time if Apex is receiving additional subsidy from the state. According to a company news release, “AEI was nominated for the Wichita Metro Chamber of Commerce 2012 Small Business Awards. This prestigious award recognizes two companies each year who are selected based on specific criteria including: entrepreneurship, employee relations, diversity, community contribution and involvement, and leadership and performance.” Maybe we can justify this grant as repayment for Apex’s community contribution. This forgivable loan may receive resistance from some council members. Current council member and mayoral candidate Jeff Longwell (district 5, west and northwest Wichita) was recently quoted in the Wichita Eagle as wanting a “moratorium on forgivable loans right now until we can reassess the way that we do economic development.” While campaigning for his current office, Council member Pete Meitzner (district 2, east Wichita) told an audience “I am not for forgivable loans.” He noted the contradiction inherent in the terms “forgivable” and “loan,” calling them “conflicting terms.” Meitzner has said he will run for his current office again.
Set January 6 as the date for the public hearing regarding the project plan for the Mosely Avenue Project TIF district in Old Town. This TIF district is a project of David Burk and Steve Barrett. Burk has received millions of taxpayer dollars in subsidy. But he’s not finished.
Consider whether to raise water bills by about 5 percent.
Consider a new lease agreement with Museum of World Treasures, Inc. which will, among other things, reduce the museum’s rent paid to the city from $60,000 per year to $1.
Consider passing the legislative agenda. See above for more on this topic.
As candidates spring up for Wichita mayor and city council, voters need to know that many, such as current district 2 council member Pete Meitzner and mayoral candidate Jeff Longwell, have been openly hostile towards citizens’ right to know how taxpayer money is spent. Following is a news story by Craig Andres of KSN News. View video below, or click here. For more on this issue, see Open government in Kansas.
Transparency groups want to know where Wichita tax money is going to promote Wichita
WICHITA, Kansas — Public or private? GoWichita, Wichita Downtown Development Corporation and the Greater Wichita Economic Development Coalition get more than three million dollars a year. Some of that is taxpayer money.
“Why are their records not public?” asks Randy Brown with the Sunshine Coalition. “It’s ridiculous because we ought to know. These are largely tax supported entities. It’s our money that’s being used. There’s no reason in the world these things shouldn’t be open.”
The Sunshine Coalition is not alone. Bob Weeks with the Voice For Liberty is asking the same questions.
“I have asked several times for complete open records on these three entities,” says Weeks.” But the mayor and city council have not been interested.”
Vice Mayor Pete Meitzner talked with KSN. We asked if the ledgers not being 100% public could be a problem.
“Okay, it could smell like that. But it’s not because we get boards. They have review boards,” says Meitzner. “They have review boards that are members of this community that would not allow it.”
Meitzner says the public doesn’t need to know about day-to-day spending.
“The people that would be looking at that on a daily basis would be our peer city competitors,” explains Meitzner. “Oklahoma, Tulsa, Kansas City and Omaha, they would want to know everything that we are doing to get people downtown.”
Still, watchdog groups say they want to know more.
“The Mayor and the City Manager say all the time that we must be transparent, that we value giving records and information to the citizen,” says Bob Weeks with the Voice For Liberty. “But when it comes down to it they really don’t act in the same way that they say.”