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.
Discussions of public policy need to start from a common base of facts and information. An episode shows that both our state government and news media are not helping.
A recent Hutchinson News article1 started with this:
Once you wake up to where Kansas was in 1992 at funding schools and what it needs to do to get caught up, said the Kansas Department of Education’s Deputy Commissioner Dale Dennis, it’s a shocker.
In 1992, base state aid per pupil was $3,600. That amount, taking into account the Consumer Price Index, would be the equivalent of $6,001.12 in 2013. Base state aid, however, has been frozen at $3,852 since 2014-15.
“The numbers are shocking, shocking,” Dennis told the Hutchinson Rotary Club at its Monday luncheon meeting at the Hutchinson Town Club.
Why is a speech by a government bureaucrat, as covered in a major newspaper, important? It illustrates two problems we face in understanding, discussing, and debating important matters of public policy.
First, can government be truthful and accurate? Dale Dennis — the state’s top official on school finance — certainly knows that the numbers he presented do not accurately characterize the totality of school spending in Kansas. But the problem is even worse than that. To use base state aid as the indicator of state spending on schools is deceptive. It’s deceptive in that, after adjusting for inflation, base state aid has declined. But total state aid to school districts has increased.
Base state aid is a false indicator of total spending on schools by the state. It’s fake — fake government. And for a newspaper to uncritically present this as news illustrates the second problem we face.
Background on base state aid and school spending
Base state aid per pupil — the statistic Dennis presented — is an important number.2 It’s the starting point for the Kansas school finance formula used before the 2015-2016 (fiscal 2016) school year, and something like it may be used in a new formula.3
Base state aid, however, is not the only important number. To calculate the funding a school district receives, weightings are added. If students fall into certain categories, weightings for that category are added to determine a weighted enrollment. That is multiplied by base state aid to determine total state aid to the district. 4
While this may seem like a technical discussion that doesn’t make a difference, it’s very important, because some of the weightings are large. The at-risk weighting, intended to cover the additional costs of teaching students from low-income families, started at five percent in 1993. In other words, for every student in this category, a school district received an extra five percent of base state aid. The value of this weighting has risen by a factor of nine, reaching 45.6 percent starting with the 2008-2009 school year.
There’s also the high-density at-risk weighting. Starting with the 2006-2007 school year districts with a high concentration of at-risk students could receive an extra weighting of four percent or eight percent. Two years later the weightings were raised to six percent and ten percent. (This formula was revised again in 2012 in a way that may have slightly increased the weightings.)
The weightings have a large effect on school funding. For example: During the 2004-2005 school year, base state aid was $3,863 and the at-risk weighting was ten percent. An at-risk student, therefore, generated $4,249 in state funding. (Other weightings might also apply.)
Ten years later base state aid was $3,852 — almost exactly the same — and the at-risk weighting was up to 45.6 percent. This generates funding of $5,609. For a district that qualified for the maximum high-density at-risk weighting, an additional $404 in funding was generated. (These numbers are not adjusted for inflation.)
So even though base state aid remained (almost) unchanged, funding targeted at certain students rose, and by a large amount.
Over time, values for the various weightings grew until by 2014 they added 85 percent to base state aid. A nearby chart shows the growth of total state aid as compared to base state aid. (Starting in fiscal 2015 the state changed the way local tax dollars are counted. That accounts for the large rise for the last year of data in the chart. For school years 2016 and 2017, block grants have replaced the funding formula, so base aid and weightings do not apply in the same way.)
What have we learned?
We’re left wondering a few things:
Did Deputy Superintendent Dale Dennis tell the audience that base state aid is just part of the school funding landscape, and not reflective of the big picture? Did he tell the audience that total state aid to schools has increased, and increased substantially? If so, why wasn’t it mentioned in the article?
If Dale Dennis did not tell the audience these things, what conclusions should we draw about his truthfulness?
Why didn’t the Hutchinson News article explain to readers that base state aid is not an accurate or total indicator of total state spending on schools?
What is the duty of reporters and editors? We’re told that experienced journalists add background and context to the news — things that the average reader may not know. (This article is designated as “Editor’s Pick” by the Hutchinson News.)
By the way, the Wichita Eagle, on its opinion page, cited in a positive and uncritical manner the Hutchinson News article.5 This is notable as the writer of the Eagle piece, opinion editor Phillip Brownlee, was a certified public accountant in a previous career. This is someone we should be able to trust to delve into numbers and tell us what they mean. But that isn’t the case.
Whatever your opinion on the level and trend of school spending, we need to start the discussion from a common base of facts and information. From this episode, we see that both our state government and news media are not helping.
Should the Wichita Eagle, a city’s only daily newspaper and the state’s largest, be concerned about the parties to its business relationships?
It’s a question that the Wichita Eagle should be considering. But the newspaper’s top executives seem to have no concern.
On February 14 I sent a message to the publisher and executive editor of the Wichita Eagle expressing my concerns about the newspaper’s future landlords. That letter appears below. After several follow-up attempts by email and telephone, neither would respond.
Sent I sent this message, I’ve found I was mistaken about the ownership of the building to where the Eagle will move and become a tenant. Brandon Steven is not an owner. I had relied on Eagle reporting1 from January, naming Steven as an owner. The reporter confirmed to me that was an error.
Of note, the Eagle portrays itself as a digital entity. One of the things about material published digitally is it can be easily corrected. As of today, the erroneous story from January 3 has not been corrected, even though the reporter knows she made an error.
Is it important that a newspaper avoid business relationships or entanglements with parties that are frequently in the news? I’ve been told that the Eagle has to rent from someone, and Wichita is a small town. Well, not really. The Eagle owns its current building, which eliminated the relationship with a landlord. And if the newspaper wants to be a rental tenant, it could rent from the many landlords who are not frequent newsmakers, especially those that the Eagle needs to hold accountable.
This is a sad episode for the Eagle. When Eagle reporters ask someone about uncomfortable topics and the subject does not respond to messages, the newspaper reports that, and in a negative light. Here, the top two executives at the Eagle would not comment on something they may be uncomfortable discussing. I think we deserve a newspaper with greater capacity for self-examination, and one whose executives are responsive to legitimate concerns.
Following, the message I sent. Note the corrections indicated in footnotes.
February 14, 2017
Mr. Roy Heatherly
Mr. Steve Coffman
The Wichita Eagle
I’m writing because I’m concerned about some issues regarding the Wichita Eagle and its news coverage.
Specifically, I’m concerned about the Eagle entering into business arrangements with the parties who purchased the Eagle building, and then becoming a tenant of the same parties.2
The three parties are Brandon Steven, Dave Wells, and David Burk. While the Eagle is certainly free to do business with anyone it wants to, these three men are newsmakers that the Eagle has covered in the past, and will likely need to cover in the future.
Mr. Heatherly, you may remember that last year at a Wichita Pachyderm Club meeting I asked you about the arrest of Brandon Steven (although I did not use his name), and why the Eagle did not cover this news. Other newspapers did, including the Topeka Capital-Journal and The Morning Sun in Pittsburg.34 Those newspapers thought the item newsworthy as Steven had recently been an applicant for a Kansas casino license, and factors such as a person’s reputation are relevant to these applications. Many thought it curious that the Eagle did not report this news.
Regarding David Burk, he is a continual newsmaker in Wichita, and not always in a positive way. A notable incident was his appeal of property taxes on property located within a tax increment financing district, which defeats the purpose of TIF.56 Worse, he misrepresented himself as an agent of the city in order to obtain this benefit. When the Eagle reported on this, it rated designation of “special report.” Other than this, Burk is a newsmaker in that he has, for many years, made large and regular campaign contributions to many city council members, and has received much subsidy from the city through many different programs.
For Dave Wells, a principal of Key Construction, he is often in the news for the same reasons as Burk: Large and continual campaign contributions, and a frequent recipient of subsidy. A particularly troubling matter involving Key Construction and public policy occurred in 2012, regarding the awarding of the contract for the new Wichita air terminal, a contract worth around $100 million. Key was one of the parties pursuing the contract. We learned that Key and its partners were making campaign contributions to one Wichita city council member, Jeff Longwell, immediately before and after he participated in a council vote on awarding the contract to Key.7 Several months later after additional campaign finance reports were filed, we saw that Key made contributions to other council members during the run-up to the contract dispute.8
When it was announced that the Eagle was selling its building to these parties, I was not comfortable with this transaction. But it was a one-time deal. Later we learned that the Eagle is to become a tenant of the same parties,9 a business relationship that is likely to last for a long time.
When the Eagle gives these parties free publicity in future news stories, will readers need to be concerned about the motivation for the Eagle printing the stories?
But more important: When these parties do something wrong, will the Eagle vigorously pursue an investigation? An investigation against its landlord?
I hope you can understand my concern.
I would appreciate receiving comments on this matter for a story I am writing for the Voice for Liberty. In addition, if either of you would like to appear on WichitaLiberty.TV to discuss that matter, we can do that too.
The depreciation expense of Intrust Bank Arena in downtown Wichita recognizes and accounts for the sacrifices of the people of Sedgwick County and its visitors to pay for the arena.
The true state of the finances of the Intrust Bank Arena in downtown Wichita are not often a subject of public discussion. Arena boosters cite a revenue-sharing arrangement between the county and the arena operator, referring to this as profit or loss. But this arrangement is not an accurate and complete accounting, and hides the true economics of the arena. What’s missing is depreciation expense.
There hasn’t been much talk of the arena’s finances this year. But in February 2015 the Wichita Eaglereported: “The arena’s net income for 2014 came in at $122,853, all of which will go to SMG, the company that operates the facility under contract with the county, Assistant County Manager Ron Holt said Wednesday.” A reading of the minutes for the February 11 meeting of the Sedgwick County Commission finds Holt mentioning depreciation expense not a single time.
In December 2014, in a look at the first five years of the arena, its manager told the Wichita Eagle this: “‘We know from a financial standpoint, the building has been successful. Every year, it’s always been in the black, and there are a lot of buildings that don’t have that, so it’s a great achievement,’ said A.J. Boleski, the arena’s general manager.”
I didn’t notice the Eagle opinion page editorializing this year on the release of the arena’s profitability figures. So here’s an example of incomplete editorializing from Rhonda Holman, who opined “Though great news for taxpayers, that oversize check for $255,678 presented to Sedgwick County last week reflected Intrust Bank Arena’s past, specifically the county’s share of 2013 profits.” (Earlier reporting on this topic in the Eagle in 2013 did not mention depreciation expense, either.)
All of these examples are deficient in some way, and contribute only confusion to the search for truthful accounting of the arena’s finances. As shown below, recognizing depreciation expense is vital to understanding profit or loss, and the “net income” referred to above doesn’t include this. In fact, the “net income” cited above isn’t anything that is recognized by standard accounting principles.
The problem with the reporting of Intrust Bank Arena profits
There are at least two ways of looking at the finance of the arena. Most attention is given to the “profit” (or loss) earned by the arena for the county according to an operating agreement between the county and SMG, a company that operates the arena.1
This agreement specifies a revenue sharing mechanism between the county and SMG. For 2105, the accounting method used in this agreement produced a profit of $1,150,206, to be split (not equally) between SMG and the county. The county’s share was $375,103.
While described as “profit” by many, this payment does not represent any sort of “profit” or “earnings” in the usual sense. In fact, the introductory letter that accompanies these calculations warns readers that these are “not intended to be a complete presentation of INTRUST Bank Arena’s financial position and results of operations and are not intended to be a presentation in conformity with accounting principles generally accepted in the United States of America.”2
That bears repeating: This is not a reckoning of profit and loss in any recognized sense. It is simply an agreement between Sedgwick County and SMG as to how SMG is to be paid, and how the county participates.
A much better reckoning of the economics of the Intrust Bank Arena can be found in the 2015 Comprehensive Annual Financial Report for Sedgwick County.3 This document holds additional information about the finances of the Intrust Bank Arena. The CAFR, as described by the county, “… is a review of what occurred financially last year. In that respect, it is a report card of our ability to manage our financial resources.”
Regarding the arena, the CAFR states:
The Arena Fund represents the activity of the INTRUST Bank Arena. The facility is operated by a private company; the county incurs expenses only for certain capital improvements or major repairs and depreciation, and receives as revenue only a share of profits earned by the operator, if any, and naming rights fees. The Arena Fund had an operating loss of $4.1 million. The loss can be attributed to $4.4 million in depreciation expense.
Financial statements in the same document show that $4,443,603 was charged for depreciation in 2015, bringing accumulated depreciation to a total of $30,791,307.
Depreciation expense is not something that is paid out in cash. Sedgwick County didn’t write a check for $4,443,603 to pay depreciation expense. Instead, depreciation accounting provides a way to recognize and account for the cost of long-lived assets over their lifespan. It provides a way to recognize opportunity costs, that is, what could be done with our resources if not spent on the arena.
But not many of our public leaders recognize this. In years past, Commissioner Dave Unruh made remarks that show the severe misunderstanding that he and almost everyone labor under regarding the nature of the spending on the arena: “I want to underscore the fact that the citizens of Sedgwick County voted to pay for this facility in advance. And so not having debt service on it is just a huge benefit to our government and to the citizens, so we can go forward without having to having to worry about making those payments and still show positive cash flow. So it’s still a great benefit to our community and I’m still pleased with this report.”
Earlier in this article we saw examples of the Sedgwick County Assistant Manager, the Intrust Bank Arena manager, and several Wichita Eagle writers making the same mistake.
The contention — witting or not — of all these people is that the capital investment of $183,625,241 (not including an operating and maintenance reserve) in the arena is merely a historical artifact, something that happened in the past, something that has no bearing today. There is no opportunity cost, according to this view. This attitude, however, disrespects the sacrifices of the people of Sedgwick County and its visitors to raise those funds. Since Kansas is one of the few states that adds sales tax to food, low-income households paid extra sales tax on their groceries to pay for the arena — an arena where they may not be able to afford tickets.
Any honest accounting or reckoning of the performance of Intrust Bank Arena must take depreciation into account. While Unruh is correct that depreciation expense is not a cash expense that affects cash flow, it is an economic fact that can’t be ignored — except by politicians, apparently. The Wichita Eagle aids in promoting this deception.
We see our governmental and civic leaders telling us that we must “run government like a business.” Without frank and realistic discussion of numbers like these and the economic facts they represent, we make decisions based on incomplete and false information.
Management Agreement between Sedgwick County and SMG. August 1, 2007. Available here. ↩
The Operations of INTRUST Bank Arena, as Managed by SMG. December 31, 2015. Available here. ↩
Sedgwick County. Comprehensive Annual Financial Report of the County of Sedgwick, Kansas for the Year ended December 31, 2015. Available here. ↩
In this episode of WichitaLiberty.TV: Wichita’s economic development, Sedgwick County spending, editorials ignoring facts, your house numbers, Kansas governors, taxpayer-funded political campaigns, and the nature of economic competition. View below, or click here to view at YouTube. Episode 127, broadcast August 21, 2016.
A Wichita business newspaper’s editorial ignores the history of our local economy. Even the history that it reported in its own pages.
Of the several problems with a Wichita Business Journal editorial, the worst is the author’s view that now, with the result of the David Dennis/Karl Peterjohn election for Sedgwick County Commission, the Wichita area can return to making progress in economic growth. The article is full of phrases like “good news for anyone in Wichita who values the city’s growth” and “We once took pride, in Wichita and in Kansas, in our record of pragmatic, collaborative economic growth.”1
None of this should be a secret to the editorial writers at the Wichita Business Journal. Two years ago it reported on, and showed, a chart from the Wichita Chamber that is similar to the chart at the end of this article.2 That chart showed slow job growth in the Wichita area. The Chamber used it to campaign for a new sales tax in Wichita.
Why don’t Wichita Business Journal editorial writers understand this? Regardless of one’s view on government’s role in economic development, to write as though we’ve had much growth in Wichita is factually incorrect. It’s not responsible.
An interactive visualization that is the source of the following chart is available here.
In this episode of WichitaLiberty.TV: New outlets for news, and criticism of the existing. Is Kansas government “hollowed out?” Ideology and pragmatism. View below, or click here to view at YouTube. Episode 124, broadcast July 17, 2016.
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.
An event in Wichita that made national headlines has so far turned out to be not the story news media enthusiastically promoted.
When two Wichita State University students — one a Muslim and also a student leader — reported they were victims of a hate crime, national news media took up the story. A Washington Post headline read “‘Trump! Trump! Trump!’ attacker allegedly yelled as he beat Hispanic man, Muslim student.” USA Today headlined with “Muslim student claims attacker yelled ‘Trump, Trump!”
From the Wichita Eagle: “A Muslim student at Wichita State University says he and a Hispanic friend, who also is a student, were attacked over the weekend by a man who shouted racial epithets and ‘Trump, Trump, Trump’ before riding away on his motorcycle.” 1
The Kansas chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR-Kansas) demanded that the incident be investigated as a hate crime.
On this matter, Wichita Eagle editorialist Rhonda Holman opined “Yet, regrettably, Wichita is making national headlines this week for an incident early Saturday at the KwikShop at 21st and Oliver that’s being investigated by the Wichita Police Department as a hate crime. … As described, the deplorable incident further confirms that GOP front-runner Donald Trump’s divisive, nativist talk is finding an audience willing to not only vote for him but also target Muslims and ethnic minorities for verbal abuse and even violence.” 2
But now it is reported that one of the two student “victims” has been charged with a crime. 3 The police report charges that one of the students — not the Muslim student — “provoked another to commit battery or breach of peace by shouting ‘Bernie Sanders’ at Joseph Bryan, rolling up his sleeves and stepping toward him.” 4 Bryan, who is the motorcycle rider alleged to have used the word “trump” in a hateful manner — has been charged, also. But apparently not for using the word “trump,” as that word does not appear in the police report. No one has been charged with a hate crime.
So shouting “Bernie Sanders” doesn’t seem to rise to the level of a hate crime, while yelling “Trump” does. Go figure.
But there’s something else. The Wichita Eagle jumped all over this story, both the newsroom and opinion page. But so far I haven’t seen an Eagle story on the actual charges that have been filed. (Oh. As I write this, the Eagle has belatedly filed a small story.)
Now we have to wait and wonder whether the Eagle editorial staff will walk back its — shall we say, “regrettable” — conclusions drawn before facts were known.
Who knows what really happened? Does it really matter? Does a scuffle involving three young people in Wichita rise to the level of national news, and does it really say much about the state of race relations in America?
But if the police report accurately describes the event, I have to wonder what charges will be filed against the two WSU student “victims” for lying to the police and the public. Will the Eagle editorial board pursue this deception with the same enthusiasm it showed for covering the original purportedly “deplorable” act?
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 a few things that make Bob wonder. Then, a troubling episode for Wichita government and news media. Finally, the harm of teachers unions. View below, or click here to view at YouTube. Episode 114, broadcast March 27, 2016.
The state’s largest newspaper has no good reason to avoid reporting and editorializing on an important issue. But that’s what the Wichita Eagle has done.
In November 2014 Wichita voters rejected a proposed Wichita city sales tax. The largest portion of that tax, $250 million, would have gone towards expanding the capacity of the Aquifer Storage and Recharge, or ASR, project.
The Wichita Eagle editorial board urged voters to approve the tax. It told readers that spending $250 million on ASR would “assure a future for Wichita with enough water.” “The needs are clear,” the editors wrote, adding “Investing in the aquifer project seems the best thing to do to anticipate and meet Wichita’s water needs.” The Eagle warned of “much higher water rates” if the sales tax is not passed.
Since voters rejected the tax to support that spending, the cost of providing adequate water has dropped, and dropped a lot. But you wouldn’t know that by reading the Wichita Eagle or by relying on our city’s other mainstream news media.
If you viewed a Wichita City Council workshop on December 1, however, you’d have learned that the city can provide adequate water for much less than $250 million. The rise in water bills will also be much less than what the Eagle and the city used to frighten voters into approving the sales tax.
So why hasn’t the Wichita Eagle reported on the December 1, 2015 workshop, in which Director of Public Works and Utilities Alan King presented the new plans — plans which will cost much less? Why have there been no editorials celebrating that we can provide adequate water at much less expense?
I can understand the editorial writers not wanting to admit they had been duped. That’s human nature. But for the news division of the Eagle: Why no reporting on this?
As it happens, the newsroom of the Eagle was also a cheerleader for the sales tax and ASR project. As an example, the Eagle printed a fact check article that disputed claims made by opponents of the tax. When asked why there was not a similar fact check article on the proponents, the reporter said there were no errors to be found. Nothing. That was incredulous — unbelievable — at the time. There were many questionable claims made by sales tax proponents. In hindsight, we are even more certain of that.
The Eagle has plenty of reporting capacity, barrels of ink, and lots of online bandwith to report and editorialize on issues like who gets free parking at the Wichita airport. That’s important, perhaps, but trivial in terms of financial impact. But on this issue involving over $100 million in savings, there is silence.
The state’s largest newspaper has no good reason to avoid reporting and editorializing on an important issue. But that’s what the Wichita Eagle has done. We wonder why.
I wonder if the reporters and editors at Wichita Business Journal can see the rich irony in this article. It reports on a group of business leaders complaining about the lack of information about Wichita.
I wonder if we’ve forgotten about the role of newspapers, their websites, and mobile apps.
Emerging Leaders want to know what’s happening in Wichita
Daniel McCoy, Wichita Business Journal
Wichita has a lot of great things going on, but how do people find out about them?
There should be an app for that, say members of the Emerging Leaders program.
Rather than having to visit a number of individual websites to find out about what’s happening locally, the all-female group of 10 Emerging Leaders who sat down with the WBJ as part of the Breakfast with the Editor series on Friday say Wichita would be well-served to have a single place people can go for a comprehensive list of all the goings on in the community.
Wichita Eagle reporting on a controversy involving religion might leave discerning readers wondering just what is the correct story.
In its article of October 6 titled “News of Wichita State chapel renovation to help Muslims sparks backlash” the Wichita Eagle reported:
Muslims at Wichita State University wanted a better place to pray. In May, workers renovated the campus chapel and removed the tiny altar and pews.
WSU administrators thought the change had resolved the problem by giving Muslim students a place to kneel on the floor and pray. Christian students could use portable chairs.
Everyone on campus seemed satisfied.
Later in the same article: “Muslims say they feel taken aback. They’d asked for the accommodation in the spring, in part, because they had difficulty finding a prayer space on campus.”
On October 8, the Eagle reported in “Wichita State president: ‘Grace Chapel can serve the needs of all faiths'”: “The pews were removed by WSU officials after some Muslim students asked that more space be made for them to pray there, in part by kneeling on roll-out rugs.”
What conclusion should we draw from these two stories? That the renovations were the result of requests by Muslim students? That seems to be what the Eagle reported.
But if you formed that conclusion, you were wrong, evidently. On October 12, this report from the Eagle in the story “Campus minister: Muslims not ones who asked for Wichita State chapel renovations”: “The removal of the pews at Wichita State University’s Grace Chapel — criticized by some as a Muslim takeover of the facility — actually was sought by a Christian campus minister and Christian students who wanted a more flexible worship space, the former campus minister and others said Monday.”
Here we see a reversal in the story. Renovations weren’t at the request of Muslim students after all.
Finally, the largest newspaper in Kansas reports on October 29: “Eagle research has found that the request to remove pews and other furnishings from the chapel had originated not with Muslims, but with Christian students and former campus minister Christopher Eshelman, who wanted a more flexible space for their worship services.” (“Wichita State sets Friday town hall on controversy over university chapel”)
I guess it would have been nice if the Eagle had performed its research before printing the October 6 and 8 news stories. Or, at least the newspaper could acknowledge that its earlier stories were incorrect. I haven’t seen that.
An example used in the article is Toyota’s decision to move its North American headquarters to Plano. Toyota received incentives in conjunction. The article quotes Jim Lentz, CEO of Toyota North America, as saying “The incentives are really important.” But that hasn’t always been the line from Toyota.
At the time of the announcement last year, Forbesreported that incentives were a small part of Toyota’s decision, and that other cities likely offered more. Similar reporting came from the Houston Chronicle.
We can easily imagine Lentz coming to his senses, realizing that he needs to credit the incentives with at least some role in Toyota’s decision. Otherwise the local taxpayers — who have to pay for the incentives — might feel duped.
But a serious problem with the article is the claim that “But incentives now seem to be off the table in Wichita.” This is an assertion made by others, including our mayor and city council members. Usually it’s qualified that cash incentives are off the table.
But incentives are far from gone in Wichita. Cash incentives — most commonly forgivable loans — may be gone, but these loans amounted to just a small fraction of the value of incentives used. (Would you like to be able to reference a database of incentives granted in Wichita? Many people would. But to my knowledge, no such list or database exists.)
Instead, the incentives most commonly used — where the real money is — are tax abatements.
Earlier this month I reported about an incentive considered and passed by the Wichita City Council. Through the city’s Industrial Revenue Bonds program, WSF developers avoid paying sales tax on $4,500,000 of building materials. City documents didn’t mention this number, but with the sales tax rate in Wichita at 7.5 percent, this is a savings of $337,500. It’s as good as a grant of cash. Better, in fact. If the city granted this cash, it would be taxable as income. But forgiveness of taxes isn’t considered income. 123
The sales tax abatement granted was on top of other incentives, most notably STAR bond financing of $7,525,000. These bonds will be repaid by sales tax collections from the project and surrounding merchants. The beneficiaries will pay nothing. 4
The incentives illustrated above are common in Wichita. Again, with the city failing to track the award of incentives, it’s difficult to know just how common.
But we can safely say that the assertion by the Wichita Business Journal that “Incentives now seem to be off the table in Wichita” is incorrect. Worse than that, it’s irresponsible to make such a statement.
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.
In this episode of WichitaLiberty.TV: The failure of Kansas lawmakers to reform state spending means you will pay. A newspaper editorial excuses bad behavior by government. Then: What do classical liberals and libertarians believe? View below, or click here to view at YouTube. Episode 85, broadcast May 24, 2015.
A Wichita newspaper op-ed is either ignorant of, or decides to forgive and excuse, bad behavior in Wichita government, particularly by then-mayoral candidate Jeff Longwell.
In a column just before the April 2015 Wichita election, Bill Wilson, managing editor of the Wichita Business Journal, reported on fallacies during the mayoral campaign, fallacies he called “glaring.” 1 But only a juvenile interpretation of the facts surrounding the events could find them fallacious. This is especially troubling since Wilson covered city hall as a reporter for the Wichita Eagle.
The first reported fallacy concerns the award of the contract for the new Wichita airport terminal. Jeff Longwell, then a city council member, had received campaign contributions from executives of Key Construction, the local company bidding on the contract. He also received contributions from Walbridge, the Michigan partner of Key. The Walbridge contributions are problematic, as they were made just a few days before the vote. More arrived a few days after Longwell’s vote. 2
In his column Wilson had an explanation as to why the council voted the way it did. That explanation was a matter of dispute that the council had to resolve. But the validity of the explanation is not the point. The point is something larger than any single issue, which is this: The Wichita city council was asked to make decisions regarding whether discretion was abused or laws were improperly applied. It is not proper for a council member to participate in decisions like this while the ink is still wet on campaign contribution checks from a party to the dispute. Jeff Longwell should not have voted on this matter.
Then we have Former Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer. Here he’s pictured fishing with his friend Dave Wells of Key Construction. Do you think it is proper for the mayor to have voted in a quasi-judicial role on a matter worth millions to his fishing buddy? How do you feel about the mayor voting for no-bid construction contracts for his friend? Contracts that later were found to be overpriced? 4
In Wichita, city council members receive campaign contributions while participating in a quasi-judicial proceeding involving the contributors. This doesn’t seem to be improper to the Wichita Business Journal. But it isn’t alone. The Wichita Eagle doesn’t object to any of this. Well, maybe once in a while it does, but not very strenuously or for very long.
Another problem: Wilson dismisses the claim that Longwell was able to exert much influence over the other six council members in order to benefit a project in his council district. But during the campaign, Longwell eagerly took credit for the good things that the city council did. Though Longwell was but one of seven votes, his commercials made it seem like he performed these deeds all by himself. But when things go wrong, well, he’s just one of seven votes.
The last fallacy Wilson objects to is this: “The idea that a $500 campaign contribution buys a vote, a specious claim by Americans for Prosperity that inexplicably lives on. If a council member’s vote is for sale for $500, their stupidity trumps their corruption. And yet some of these false claims remain in political advertising, despite being debunked by two media outlets — and here.”
A few points: First, it’s not just a $500 contribution. We find many examples of individual $500 contributions from executives of the same company, along with spouses and other family members. The contributions are effectively stacked. Second, sometimes campaigns are funded to a large extent by these stacked contributions from just one or two firms. 5 Third, if these contributions are not seen as valuable to those who make them, why do the same small groups of business interests make the maximum contributions year after year?
As far as the claims being debunked: A few weeks ago I showed you the inexplicably bad reporting from the Wichita Eagle.6 The Business Journal didn’t do any better.
Wilson’s op-ed seems more like an audition for a job at city hall than a critical look at the campaign and its issues. Making a move from news media to a government job in communications is a common career move. There are three former journalists working in Wichita city hall. One former Wichita Eagle reporter went to work for the Wichita school district. There are many examples in Topeka. It’s a problem when journalists who are supposed to be exercising watchdog duty over government agencies end up working for them. We can also recognize when journalists are auditioning for jobs in government.