Tag Archives: Wichita Eagle

On big contracts, Wichita has had problems

As Wichita prepares to award a large construction contract, let’s hope the city acts in an ethical manner this time.

As the Wichita City Council prepares to make a decision regarding a contract for the new baseball stadium, the council’s past reputation in these matters can’t be overlooked.

The controversy over the stadium contract has been covered by the Wichita Eagle: “The Wichita City Council hasn’t officially approved a design-build team for the city’s new $75 million Minor League ballpark, but there’s already been a protest over the recommended group. … At issue in a protest by a competing team is whether the JE Dunn team meets a key requirement to be selected, which is that it has built at least three similar Major or Minor League ballparks.” 1

The biggest potential for unethical behavior comes from Wichita Mayor Jeff Longwell. In 2012, as the Wichita city council was considering the award of the contract for the new airport terminal, Longwell (then a council member) received campaign contributions from executives of Walbridge, a Michigan construction company partnering with Key Construction to build the new Wichita airport terminal. 2

Two Walbridge contributions were made on July 16, 2012, the day before the council, Longwell included, voted to award the contract to the Key/Walbridge partnership. More contributions from Walbridge arrived on July 20, according to Longwell’s campaign finance reports.

When questioned about the Michigan contributions, Longwell told the Wichita Eagle, “We often get contributions from a wide variety of sources, including out-of-town people.” But analysis of past campaign finance documents filed by Longwell showed just three out-of-state contributions totaling $1,500. 3

In deciding the airport contract issue, the council was asked to make decisions involving whether discretion was abused or whether laws were improperly applied. It’s not surprising that Jeff Longwell made these decisions in favor of his campaign contributors. But he shouldn’t have been involved in the decision.

That was not the first time Jeff Longwell has placed the interests of his campaign contributors ahead of taxpayers. In 2011 the city council, with Longwell’s vote, decided to award Key a no-bid contract to build the parking garage that is part of the Ambassador Hotel project. The no-bid cost of the garage was to be $6 million, according to a letter of intent. Later the city decided to place the contract for competitive bid. Key Construction won the bidding, but for a price $1.3 million less.

It’s not only Longwell with problematic behavior in the past. In 2012, before the vote on the airport contract, executives of Key Construction and spouses contributed heavily to the campaigns of both Wichita City Council Member Lavonta Williams (district 1, northeast Wichita) and Wichita City Council Member James Clendenin (district 3, southeast and south Wichita). These contributions were not known to the public until months after the vote was cast.

Williams is no longer on the council, but Clendenin remains.

Former Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer had his own issues, with a curious set of ethics principles. 4

The city needs an adult in the room. That person is, or should be, Wichita city manager Robert Layton. In the past he has implemented policies to end the practice of no-bid contracts. We don’t know what will happen this week.


Notes

  1. Rengers, Carrie. City selects ballpark design-build group; competing bidder questions qualifications. Wichita Eagle, November 29, 2018. Available at https://www.kansas.com/news/business/biz-columns-blogs/carrie-rengers/article222372330.html (subscription may be required).
  2. “A campaign finance report filed by Wichita City Council Member Jeff Longwell contains contributions from executives associated with Walbridge, a Michigan construction company partnering with Key Construction to build the new Wichita airport terminal. … These contributions are of interest because on July 17, 2012, the Wichita City Council, sitting in a quasi-judicial capacity, made a decision in favor of Key and Walbridge that will cost some group of taxpayers or airport customers an extra $2.1 million. Five council members, including Longwell, voted in favor of this decision. Two members were opposed.” Weeks, Bob. Michigan company involved in disputed Wichita airport contract contributes to Jeff Longwell. Available at https://wichitaliberty.org/wichita-government/michigan-company-involved-in-disputed-wichita-airport-contract-contributes-to-jeff-longwell/.
  3. “Analysis of Longwell’s July 30, 2012 campaign finance report shows that the only contributions received from addresses outside Kansas are the Walbridge contributions from Michigan, which contradicts Longwell’s claim. Additionally, analysis of ten recent campaign finance reports filed by Longwell going back to 2007 found three contributions totaling $1,500 from California addresses.” Weeks, Bob. Jeff Longwell out-of-town campaign contributions. Available at https://wichitaliberty.org/wichita-government/jeff-longwell-out-of-town-campaign-contributions/.
  4. Weeks, Bob. The odd ethics of Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer. Available at https://wichitaliberty.org/wichita-government/odd-ethics-wichita-mayor-carl-brewer/.

It’s not the bonds, it’s the taxes

A Wichita Eagle headline reads “Wichita aircraft supplier plans 45 new jobs with $7.5 million bond request,” but important information is buried and incomplete.

According to the agenda packet for the December 4, 2018 meeting of the Wichita City Council, a local aircraft supplier is “requesting issuance of bonds” worth $7.5 million. 1

Even if you read the entire Wichita Eagle article2 on this matter, you wouldn’t really learn much about this item. You might think the city is lending the company this money, which many people assume is the purpose of the Industrial Revenue Bonds program. But in the IRB program, the city lends no money, nor does it guarantee repayment of the bonds. 3

Instead, the purpose of the IRBs is to convey a tax holiday. In the very last paragraph, the article mentions this property tax abatement, but no dollar value is given, even though the “city documents” presumably used as a source for this story clearly state the dollar values. The sales tax exemption is also mentioned, with no dollar value given. City documents don’t hold that, either.

The value of the tax holiday, according to the city, is estimated at $82,040 annually for up to ten years, shared among local taxing authorities thusly:

City of Wichita: $22,837
State of Kansas: $1,050
Sedgwick County: $20,575
USD 259 (Wichita school district): $37,578

For the value of the sales tax exemption, no value is given. By city documents state the purpose of the bonds is to pay for “$4,000,000 for new machinery and equipment.” Sales tax on that would be $300,000. If the entire $7.5 million is spent on taxable purchases, sales tax savings would be $562,500.

Why doesn’t the Wichita Eagle mention some of these important matters?

The article also holds no mention of the important public policy issues involved. For example, why does the owner of the business want to escape paying the same taxes that (nearly) everyone else must pay? This question is especially pertinent as Kansas is one of the few states in which even low-income households pay the full sales tax rate on groceries.

Perhaps the reason is that the cost of government makes this investment unprofitable. If that is true, we have a grave problem. If the city must issue bonds and create a tax holiday for this rather small investment, we have a capacity problem. A reader on Facebook left this wry comment to the Eagle story: “So, local area population 600,000+ people … About to add 45 jobs over 5 years?”

The city justifies tax giveaways like this by using a benefit-cost analysis. That is, if the city gives up some taxes, it will receive even more in additional taxes. This analysis is useful to politicians and bureaucrats. But the analysis is valid and meaningful only if the investment is impossible without the tax giveaway.

The question then becomes: Is this tax forgiveness necessary? City documents don’t say. Showing necessity is not a requirement of the IRB incentive program. We’re left wondering if the tax expenditure, which is potentially more than one million dollars over ten years, is truly needed.

The city is proud of its requirements that the benefit-cost ratio must be at least 1.3 to 1. But for USD 259, the Wichita school district, the ratio is 1.17 to 1. So the city is pushing an “investment” on the school district that is below the standard it requires for itself. The school district has no say in the matter, based on Kansas state law. Note also that the school district gives up the most tax revenue, 1.6 times as much as the city.

By the way, Wichita Mayor Jeff Longwell says the city is no longer using cash as economic development incentives. But when the city waves a magic legislative wand and says you don’t have to pay $82,040 per year in property tax, how is that different than giving the same amount in cash? Or when the city says don’t bother paying the sales tax on this, how is that different than giving a cash discount?

The answer is there’s no difference. The mayor, city council members, and city bureaucrats hope you won’t notice the sleight of hand, that is, skillful deception. And with the Wichita Eagle being the watchdog, there’s little chance very many people will be informed.


Notes

  1. City of Wichita, agenda for December 4, 2018. V-2: Public Hearing and Issuance of Industrial Revenue Bonds, Etezazi Industries, Inc. Available at http://www.wichita.gov/Council/Agendas/12-04-2018%20Agenda.pdf.
  2. Siebenmark, Jerry. Wichita aircraft supplier plans 45 new jobs with $7.5 million bond request. Wichita Eagle, November 30, 2018.
  3. “Industrial Revenue Bonds are a mechanism that Kansas cities and counties use to allow companies to avoid paying property and sales taxes.” Weeks, Bob. Industrial revenue bonds in Kansas. Available at https://wichitaliberty.org/kansas-government/industrial-revenue-bonds-kansas/.