Wichita has increased its long-term debt load and shifted tax money from debt repayment to current consumption.
Starting with a debt load of $813,493,172 in 2007, decisions made by the mayor and city council have increased that figure by $381,146,955 in 2011. That’s an increase of nearly 47 percent in four years. The debt level now stands at $1,194,640,127 as of December 31, 2011.
Mayor Carl Brewer and long-serving council members Jeff Longwell (district 5, west and northwest Wichita) and Lavonta Williams (district 1, northeast Wichita) have presided over this increase of long-term debt that city taxpayers will be paying for a long time.
Instead of seeking to retire this debt, the council has taken action that delays paying off the debt. According to the 2010 City Manager’s Policy Message, page CM-2, “One mill of property tax revenue will be shifted from the Debt Service Fund to the General Fund. In 2011 and 2012, one mill of property tax will be shifted to the General Fund to provide supplemental financing. The shift will last two years, and in 2013, one mill will be shifted back to the Debt Service Fund. The additional millage will provide a combined $5 million for economic development opportunities.”
In other words, the city has shifted tax money from debt repayment to current spending needs. While economic development seems like a worthy cause, it hasn’t worked very well for the city. In his most recent State of the City address, Mayor Brewer said that the city’s efforts in economic development had created “almost 1000 jobs” in 2011, one of the years in which debt service taxes were redirected to spending on economic development.
While “almost 1000” sounds like a lot of jobs, that number deserves context. According to estimates from the Kansas Department of Labor, the civilian labor force in the City of Wichita for December 2011 was 192,876, with 178,156 people at work. This means that the 1,000 jobs created accounted for from 0.52 percent to 0.56 percent of our city’s workforce, depending on the denominator used. This miniscule number is dwarfed by the normal ebb and flow of other economic activity.
It is unknown how many of these jobs would have been created without the city’s economic development assistance, but the number must be substantial. Also, the mayor did not mention the costs of creating these jobs. These costs have a negative economic impact on those who pay these costs. This means that economic activity — and jobs — are lost somewhere else in order to pay for the incentives.