Despite the stunning defeat of Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer’s proposed sales tax increase, and the fact that in April, Brewer’s term limit will expire, he and the City Council are determined to take action in financing the projects that the Wichita voters just shot down.
The sales tax increase was defeated by an overwhelming 62-38 percentage margin, signifying very low support for the Mayor’s plan, largely due to a severe lack of transparency in regards to economic development, and the fact that the four proposed projects (water, transit, street maintenance, and job incentives) were bundled together, forcing voters to either approve or deny the entire package.
The Mayor claims that the City did everything it could to gain public input over a two-year period, and that the public supports these four initiatives. However, local blogger Bob Weeks notes that out of roughly 283,000 Wichita residents who are of voting age, only 2,000 participated in the ACT ICT project, which is 0.7%.
Furthermore, the surveys used in that process were extremely biased, only allowing participants to “strongly agree”, “agree” or be “neutral” when responding to the questions. There were no options to “disagree”. In the meetings the Mayor cites, which took place afterwards, city officials moderated, using what is known as the Delphi Technique, a psychological tactic where facilitators work participants towards a predetermined outcome.
I personally attended, participated in, and filmed once such meeting between city officials and Americans for Prosperity, one of the strongest opponents of the sales tax. Watching the video, you can see how the facilitator attempts to reword criticisms provided by Wichita taxpayers. At the end of that video, you can even watch the facilitator attempt to rephrase my own comments.
Based on the low level of participation in the study that Brewer cites as evidence of widespread public support for his plans to spend $400 million on a new water supply, transit, street maintenance, and job incentives, it is hard to believe that we have a true gauge of Wichitans’ priorities. What has been made astoundingly clear is that the Wichita voters do not approve of increasing the sales tax by one cent for five years to fund these projects.
Based on my own conversations with members of the community, I do believe that there is support for funding a long-term water supply, transit, and street maintenance, but that does not mean that Wichita voters support the plans laid out by the City for these projects.
In regards to the water supply, Wichita has some of the lowest water rates in the nation, especially for high volume industrial customers. If we need more money for water, charging these wealthy businesses higher rates for their consumption seems like a logical solution. According to Kansas geologist Karma Mason, a member of the state water board, Wichita has enough water to last the next 20 years, so we should have plenty of time to come up with a solid plan. Mason also states that pouring more cash into the ASR, Brewer’s plan, does not solve the issues Wichita faces. What it would have done is provided for a very large construction project, and, given the Mayor and City Council’s track record, one could reasonably assume that Key Construction, the Mayor’s and certain council members’ largest campaign donor, would have been awarded a no-bid contract. There is no reason to approve a new water plan, regardless of its funding source, between now and April when Brewer leaves office.
Transit is a mess, and we need a plan to fix it, ensuring that it serves the community without losing money, like it does now. The City hired a consultant firm to provide the Council with four potential concepts. The highly detailed document that firm gave to the city is 296 pages long, which breaks down to roughly 74 pages per concept. However, the plan the City laid forth is only two pages long. The link to that two page plan has been removed from the City of Wichita’s website, for unknown reasons.
Fortunately, for the taxpayers of Wichita, I made copies of that vague, two-page document, prior to the City removing it:
As you can see, nowhere in this document, does it specify how many, or which buses, will be running second shifts, or how long that shift might be, which was the big promise made by the proponents of the sales tax. What we can see is that $17.5 million dollars was being included without any clear purpose. The City sold this concept based on the second shift of buses, but as we can see, there was significantly more money allocated for unspecified purposes than there was for a second shift of buses.
Based on information contained in the much larger document provided to the city by its consultants, it appears that the money may have gone to the construction of two new bus station hubs at Town East and Town West malls, had the sales tax increased passed. I wonder who was going to win the contracts to build those.
The job incentive portion of the failed sales tax proposal was by far the most controversial. The City has, for years, taken Wichita tax dollars and funneled that money into three primary non-profit groups, Go Wichita, The Downtown Development Corporation, and the Greater Wichita Economic Development Coalition. These groups are supposed to be creating jobs in Wichita, and increasing tourism. Unfortunately, these groups are exempt from the Kansas Open Records Act, despite being almost solely funded by Wichita tax dollars, so, as a result, we have no idea what they are spending our tax dollars on.
Councilman Jeff Longwell, who is also running for Mayor, expressed his support for the jobs initiative in this press conference, where Mayor Brewer attempts to explain why he thinks it is prudent to move forward with these plans, despite having been voted down by the taxpayers:
Longwell will also be out of office this April, due to term limits, unless the voters decide to elect a mayor who clearly doesn’t care that the voters do not agree with his economic development strategy.
I think it is important to note that the City only put this sales tax increase to a public vote because the law requires them to. The City cannot pass a sales tax increase without a public vote. However, the City can allocate money for these projects without any public input, so long as they find alternative revenue sources to fund them.
This sales tax increase was shot down by the voters because they simply do not trust the Mayor and certain council members to spend tax dollars with transparency and accountability. Rather than acknowledge that the City has a problem with transparency, the Mayor wants to believe that the voters simply did not understand the projects that were proposed. Perhaps the Mayor should give Wichita voters more credit. Perhaps they simply didn’t buy the terrible plans Brewer was selling.
Lastly, I want to reiterate the original point of this editorial. Why does Mayor Carl Brewer believe it is his place to seek out alternative funding options for a plan that the Wichita voters just overwhelmingly voted against? Why does Brewer insist on making plans that he will not be in office to see through? Wichitans will soon be voting for a new mayor, and that mayor deserves the opportunity to campaign on their plan for Wichita’s future.