It’s enlightening to look back at some examples of discussion at the Wichita City Council so that we remember the attitudes of council members and city bureaucrats towards citizens. In the following example, the council was considering whether Wichitans and visitors should be notified of the amount of extra sales tax — or even the existence of extra tax — they will pay when shopping at merchants located within Community Improvement Districts (CIDs). Did the council side with special interests or citizens?
At its December 7, 2010 meeting, the Wichita City Council considered whether stores in CIDs should be required to post signs warning shoppers of the amount of extra tax being charged. Some, including myself, felt that shoppers should have this information before deciding to shop in such a store.
In discussion from the bench, Jeff Longwell, who was Vice Mayor at the time, said it is important that we disclose these “types of collections” as they are taxing the public. But in a convoluted stretch of reasoning, he argued that posting a sign with a specific tax rate would be confusing to citizens: (View video below, or click here to view at YouTube.
“I was leaning to putting a percentage on there, but again if we have a website that spells out the percentage, I think that’s important. And number two, I guess I would be a little bit concerned how we would work through it — if you put a percentage on a development over here in downtown that’s only collecting one percent and someone walks in and sees a CID tax collected of one percent and just assumes every CID tax is one percent it would be confusing when they go to the next one, and it may scare them off if they see one that’s two percent, they’ll never go to one that’s maybe only one percent. So I think that proves an additional concern for some confusion. So having something on the front door that says we are financing this with a CID tax, where they’re made well aware that it’s collected there, I think to try and include a percentage might even add some confusion as we collect different CID taxes around the city.”
Longwell is content to tell people as they enter a store that they’re being taxed, but not how much tax they’re required to pay. We can summarize his attitude as this: Giving citizens too much information will confuse them.
Council Member Sue Schlapp (who left office in 2011 after reaching the city’s limit on length of service) said she supported transparency in government:
“Every tool we can have is necessary … This is very simple: If you vote to have the tool, and then you vote to put something in it that makes the tool useless, it’s not even any point in having the vote, in my opinion. Either we do it, and we do it in a way that it’s going to be useful and accomplish its purpose. … I understand totally the discussion of letting the public know. I think transparency is absolutely vital to everything we do in government. So I think we’re doing that very thing.”
Schlapp understood and said what everyone knows: That if you arm citizens with knowledge of high taxes, they’re likely to go somewhere else to shop. Well, maybe except for women, as Council Member Lavonta Williams (district 1, northeast Wichita), noted that women would still want to shop at a store in a CID if it is “very unique.”
Mayor Carl Brewer said he agreed with Schlapp and the other council members.
In the end, the council unanimously voted for requiring signage that reads, according to minutes from the meeting: “This project made possible by Community Improvement District Financing and includes the website.”
This sign doesn’t mention anything about the rate of extra sales tax that customers of CID merchants will pay. In fact, reading the sign, shoppers are not likely to sense that they’ll be paying any additional tax. The sign almost makes the Community Improvement District seem benevolent, not predatory.
Contrary to Schlapp’s assertions, this is not anything like government transparency.
Here’s what is really troubling: What does it say about Wichita’s economic development strategy that if you fully inform citizens and visitors on what they’re asked to pay, it renders the tool “useless,”as Schlapp contended?
It’s just another example of the council and staff being totally captured by special interests, preferring advancing the interests of their cronies rather than protecting citizens.