In Wichita, it turns out we have to sell a hotel in order to fix our streets.
Update: The Council approved these projects.
In September the Wichita City Council decided to sell the Hyatt Regency hotel in downtown Wichita for $20 million. Now the council will consider two proposals for spending this money.
One proposal is to spend $10 million on street repair, called “one-time pavement maintenance projects” in city documents.1
A second proposal is to spend $4 million on transit over the next four years. This is pitched as sort of a “bridge to sustainability.” That is, if the Wichita transit system can make it through the next four years, it can — somehow — become sustainable. The plan contains idea like this: “Extensive public education will be used to build ridership. Transit information will be available to a wider audience. Potential users will be engaged in more one-on-one manner.”2
Whatever the merits of these spending programs, Wichita is taking a capital asset and using it to fund current spending. In particular, street maintenance needs to be performed continuously. Here, the city has not been taking care of streets that taxpayers paid for and entrusted to the city for care. It turns out we have to sell a hotel in order to fix our streets. But street maintenance is something that needs to be performed — and paid for — every year. We shouldn’t have to rely on a sale of a capital asset to fund daily needs.
Following, from October, what the city should do with the Hyatt proceeds.
Wichita, give back the Hyatt proceeds
Instead of spending the proceeds of the Hyatt hotel sale, the city should honor those who paid for the hotel — the city’s taxpayers.
The City of Wichita has sold the Hyatt Regency Hotel for $20 million. Now, what should the city do with these funds? In a workshop this week, the city manager and council recognized that these funds should not be used for operating purposes. This is important. The Hyatt Hotel was paid for with long-term debt, which the city says has been retired. The proceeds from this sale should be used in a similar way: For long-term capital investment, not day-to-day operating expenses. But the council heard two proposals that are decidedly more like operating expenses rather than capital investment.
One proposal, presented by Public Works Director Alan King, is to spend $10 million on street repair over two years. Part of that expense is to purchase a new truck, which is a capital, not operating, expense. But King later revealed that the truck could be purchased out of the existing capital budget.
Street maintenance, however, is an operating expense.
A second proposal, from the Wichita Transit System, would use about $4 million to sustain and improve current bus service. It was presented to the council as a “bridge to a long term solution.”
This, too, is an operating expense.
As these proposals were presented in a workshop, no decision was made.
These two proposed uses of the $20 million Hyatt sales proceeds are contrary to the goal of not using the funds for operating purposes. If the city decides to use the sales proceeds in this way, a capital investment will have been sold in order to pay for day-to-day expenses.
Instead of spending on these two projects, the city should simply return the money to those who paid for the Hyatt in the first place. Those people are, of course, the taxpayers of Wichita. It would be difficult to give back the funds to individual taxpayers in proportion to the amount they supplied. So what the city should do is retire $20 million of the city’s long-term debt.
If not that, then the city should use the Hyatt proceeds to pay for another long-lived asset, perhaps the new downtown library. Either of these alternatives respects the principles of sound financial practice, and also respects the taxpayers.