Johnson Controls loan not needed

Tomorrow the Sedgwick County Commission will consider making a forgivable loan in the amount of $42,500 to Johnson Controls.

A forgivable loan means that the county immediately pays the loan principle to the company. Then, if performance goals are met over the next five years in this case, the county forgives a portion of the loan each year. At the end of five years the company will owe the county nothing, if the criteria are met.

Economically, the forgivable loan is equivalent to a grant of money subject to meeting performance criteria. In this case, the criteria consists of maintaining a certain level of employment.

Johnson is a very large company, with 137,000 worldwide employees and a profit of $1,540,000,000. So this is not a small company, or a startup company, or a company that lacks for money, or a company that isn’t successful. Its stock has far outperformed leading market indexes over the past ten years. The City of Wichita approved a forgivable loan for the same amount.

The harm of crony capitalism

The harm of economic development programs like this is that when the city, county, and state make them available, companies will take advantage of them. Evidently companies find it’s easy to persuade this state and this commission to grant them money.

At least easier than it is to raise equity, where you have to trade shares of ownership for money. Or in debt markets, where you have to pay interest and principal.

This behavior creates a self-fulfilling feedback loop. Company A sees what Companies B, C, D, E, F (and so on …) have received from the city, county, and state, and they want it too. Soon we may find ourselves in the situation where few companies will consider Wichita and Sedgwick County without some form of handout.

But the real harm that these programs do is the destruction of civil society. By that I mean a society that respects individuals and property rights, and where people trade harmoniously with others through markets. This includes companies attempting to raise investment capital, like the applicant company today.

Instead, we replace a civil society and market entrepreneurship with political entrepreneurship, and with all the negatives that accompany that.

If we in Sedgwick County are looking to distinguish ourselves, let’s start today by rejecting crony capitalism as our economic development tool.

The proposal document

The proposal document delivered to Johnson Controls by the Kansas Department of Commerce was written by a business consultant in Hoffman Estates, Illinois. This naturally leads to the question: can’t someone in Kansas do this work? A Department of Commerce official explained that the department has several consultants “on the ground in the markets they serve” to better work with clients in their markets. The Department believes this work can be done at lower cost and with greater flexibility this way.

Second, the Department of Commerce document includes as part of the incentive package an item labeled “Personal Property Tax Exemption” with a value of $1,143,563. Other incentives are valued at $1,168,000, for a total of $2,311,563.

Interestingly, when this proposal came before the Wichita City Council, the value of the state incentives was given as $1,168,000. In its presentation, Wichita officials didn’t include the personal property tax exemption in the value of the deal.

There’s good reason for that. The $1,168,000 represents incentives crafted specifically for Johnson. But the personal property tax exemption is available to anyone, as the porposal document later explains. Kansas hasn’t taxed this type of property since 2006.

So whether to include the value of this tax savings as an incentive is open to question. The Department of Commerce says that since not all states offer this tax exemption, it is an advantage that Kansas can offer. It’s the type of advantage that Kansas ought to create more of, as it is something that applies equally to all companies, not just to those who apply and fit into state-developed criteria. This represents the state acting as a caretaker of a level competitive playing field, rather than as an active investor in specific companies. (The other incentives, the $1,168,000 is the state acting as active investor.)

What is most troubling about this forgivable loan and the state incentive package is that it isn’t necessary in this case. Commissioner Richard Ranzau participated in a tour of the Johnson facility, and he says that company officials said the jobs were coming to Wichita no matter what, in Ranzau’s assessment.

And in response to a question by Commissioner and Chair Dave Unruh as to where else the jobs could go, Ranzau reported the answer was that Wichita is the only place that made sense.

So the obvious question is: Why are we spending money on these subsidies when the company already has planned to move the equipment and jobs to Wichita?

Conflict of interest

Another issue involving the proposed forgivable loan to Johnson is the fact that, according to Ranzau, Commissioner Jim Skelton’s brother works for Johnson.

Under Kansas law, this fact alone does not establish a conflict of interest. Sedgwick County, apparently, does not have a code of ethics that covers situations like this.

CityEthics.org has a model ethics code that cities and counties might adopt. It states: “An official or employee may not use his or her official position or office, or take or fail to take any action, or influence others to take or fail to take any action, in a manner which he or she knows, or has reason to believe, may result in a personal or financial benefit, not shared with a substantial segment of the city’s population, for any of the following persons or entities …”

The code goes on to define sibling as a member of the class of persons to which this code applies.

If the county had a code of ethics like this, Commissioner Skelton would not be able to participate or vote on this matter. So while Kansas law does not require Skelton to step aside for this item, he certainly could do so on his own initiative, and he should.

2 Comments

  • Kelly Parks had a 30 page ethics policy that the commission turned down in 2009. In any other state, the vote of Jim S. would be a violation due to his brother working at Johnson controls. But then again, he had good training for that kind of thing at the City of Wichita.

  • Anonymous -

    Using Bob’s logic, all the elected officials would have to recuse themselves all the time as every decision they make potentially affects the financial gain of every constituent. Duh.

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