Reports that income earned by the Intrust Bank Arena is down sharply has brought the arena’s finances back into the news. The arena, located in downtown Wichita and owned by Sedgwick County, is deemed to be a success by the county and arena boosters based on “profit” figures generated during its first year of operations. But these numbers are not an honest assessment of the arena’s financial performance.
When the numbers were presented to Sedgwick County commissioners this week, commission chair Dave Unruh said that he is “pleased that we we still are showing black ink.”
He then 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.”
The contention of Unruh and other arena boosters is that the capital investment of $183,625,241 (not including an operating and maintenance reserve) on the arena is merely a historical artifact, something that happened in the past and that has no bearing today. This attitude, however, disrespects the sacrifices of the people of Sedgwick County and its visitors to raise those funds.
Since it is only one year old, presumably the arena could be sold for something near its building cost, less an allowance for wear and tear. If not, then the county has a lot of explaining to do as to why it built an asset that has no market value.
But even if the arena has no market value — and I suspect that in reality it has very little value — it still has an economic cost that must be recognized, that cost being the sales tax collected to pay for it. While arena boosters dismiss this as past history, the county recognizes this cost each year, and will continue to do so for many years.
The county, however, doesn’t go out of its way to present the complete and accurate accounting of the arena’s cost. Instead, the county and arena boosters trumpet the “profit” earned by the arena for the county according to an operating and management agreement between the county and SMG, a company that operates the arena.
This agreement specifies a revenue sharing mechanism between the county and SMG. Based on the terms of the agreement, Sedgwick County received payment of $1,116,442 for the 2010 year. While described as profit by many — and there was much crowing over the seemingly large amount — 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.”
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.
Commissioner Karl Peterjohn has warned that these figures — and the monthly “profit” figures presented to commissioners — do not include depreciation expense. That expense is a method of recognizing and accounting for the large capital cost of the arena — the cost that arena boosters dismiss.
In April Sedgwick County released that depreciation number in its 2010 Comprehensive Annual Report. The number is pretty big: $4.4 million, some four times the purported “earnings” of the arena.
Any honest accounting or reckoning of the performance of Intrust Bank Arena must take this number into account. Unruh is correct in that this depreciation expense is not a cash expense that affects cash flow. That cash was spent during the construction phase of the arena.
But depreciation expense provides a way to recognize and account for the cost of long-lived assets like buildings over their lifespan. It recognizes and respects the investment of those who paid the sales tax. When we follow standard practices like recognizing the cost of capital assets through depreciation expense, we’re forced to recognize that there’s a $4.4 million gorilla in the room that arena boosters don’t want to talk about.
Using information about arena operations contained in the operations report, we can construct what an actual income statement for the arena would look like, following generally accepted business principles. According to the statement, total operating income for 2010 was $7,005,224. Operating expenses were $4,994,488. Subtracting gives a figure of $2,010,736. This number, however, is not labeled a profit in the report. Instead, the report calls it “Increase in Net Assets Arising from Operating Activities Managed by SMG.”
An accounting of profit would have to subtract the $4.4 million in depreciation expense. Doing that results in a loss of $2,389,264. This — or something like it — is the number we should be discussing when assessing the financial performance of Intrust Bank Arena.
Fiscal conservatives — and sometimes even liberals — often speak of “running government like a business.” As an example, Unruh’s campaign website from last year states “… as a business owner he works hard to apply good business principles to County government …”
But here’s an example of conservative government leaders ignoring a basic business principle in order to paint a rosy picture of a government spending project. Unruh is not alone in doing this.
Without honest discussion of numbers like these, we make decisions based on incomplete and false information. This is especially important as civic leaders agitate for another sales tax or other taxes to pay for more public investment. The sales pitch is that once the tax is collected and the assets paid for, we don’t need to consider the cost. They contend, as is the attitude of Unruh and arena boosters, that we can just sweep it under the rug and pretend it doesn’t exist. This is a false line of reasoning, and citizens ought not to be fooled.
This is another example of governmental accounting that would NOT be allowed in the private sector. This example is bad, but it is much worse with federal accounting.
No governmental entity, state, federal, school district, etc., ever takes into account depreciation. Nor do they carry large cash balances for future replacement of physical assets.