Setting the stage for Wednesday’s debate on a forgivable loan to help Johnson Controls expand its local factories, Sedgwick County Commissioner Richard Ranzau lashed out at county economic development incentives, saying they violate biblical law.
“You know we have the (commandments), ‘Thou shalt not covet’ and ‘Thou shalt not steal,’” he said. “Our economic policy on forgivable loans violates both of those, because a business comes in and says ‘I want somebody else’s money, I’m going to covet the taxpayer money.’ And we say ‘OK, we will take that and redistribute it to you.’ That’s theft.”
Ranzau, who said it’s not government’s job to create jobs, is a frequent critic of economic development assistance.
His latest target is Johnson Controls, a heating and air-conditioning company that manufactures equipment under the Coleman and other brand names.
The city of Wichita has approved a $42,500 forgivable loan to the company and the County Commission is being asked to approve a similar amount. The two loans are the local contribution to a $1.2 million package to help the company move 182 jobs to Wichita from its factory in Norman, Okla.
The issue is scheduled for a vote at the commission’s Wednesday meeting, 9 a.m. at the County Courthouse, 525 N. Main, Wichita.
The city and county loans will be used for moving and training expenses. Johnson won’t have to pay the money back if it creates and maintains 182 local jobs for five years. The company estimated the average salary for those jobs will be about $32,000 a year.
Johnson now employs 1,050 full- and part-time workers in Wichita and Maize. The company is consolidating its residential equipment production lines here.
Ranzau said he doesn’t think the loan is necessary.
“We’re going to give money to a company whose jobs are going to come here no matter what, because they made a business decision,” he said.
County Community Development Director Irene Hart said she sees such economic development incentives as a contract in which the county provides some funding to assist companies with buying equipment and the companies agree to provide jobs in the county. If a company fails to meet its employment and investment targets, it must return the county’s money, she said.
“It really is a partnership showing good will and holding them accountable for a five-year period to retain and grow jobs here,” she said.
“But it’s not a proper function of government, OK?” Ranzau replied. “It’s not the government’s job. If someone needs equipment and they need money that’s what banks are for.”
“Well, according to the laws of Kansas, sir, it’s ….” Hart began.
But she never finished the sentence because Ranzau interrupted: “I don’t care if it’s legal, that doesn’t mean it’s right. We have this rule of law, the idea that people are entitled to their own money and the government shouldn’t be able to take it and give it to someone else.”
Ranzau compared the county’s economic development efforts to federal efforts to aid Solyndra, a California-based solar-power company that went bankrupt after receiving a $535 million loan guarantee from the U.S. Department of Energy.
“We have a failed policy here, just like (President) Obama has a failed policy in Washington, DC, but we refuse to admit it, just as he refuses to admit that his policies have failed,” Ranzau said.
“The biggest issue I’ve seen here since being a commissioner is the double standard we have here at the local level. We complain about things that happen at the federal level but then we do exactly the same thing here at the local level and it is wrong,” he said.
Commissioner Jim Skelton objected to Ranzau’s characterization of other officials’ views, which he called “guesswork.”
“I disagree with him, but I object to his assertions that I am thinking a certain way,” Skelton said. “I just think it’s reasonable here to look at the pros and the cons. I’m not going to sit here and focus on the cons and provide everybody with a lecture on my philosophy.
“I think I can see this evidence here in front of me and I’m going to take time to discuss this further with staff to make sure that when I say the government has a role in economic development, that it is successful,” Skelton said.
He also disagreed with Ranzau’s statements about the role of the federal government.
“You know, we can travel the world and go around and see many places, Third-World places, where the government doesn’t do anything for their people,” Skelton said. “I can look at the history of this country and I know that there are things that I can disagree with in the past, but I can say that our federal government is one of the reasons America is one of the strongest, or is the strongest, country in the world and does have the biggest economy. It’s OK to disagree but I don’t want to be painted into some kind of stereotype on somebody else’s philosophy. I just think that’s wrong, sir.”
Ranzau fired back: “Let me say this, this country’s not great because of the federal government. This country is great because of the people exercising their freedoms and liberties to prosper and make this government great, this country.”
Ranzau cited Apple founder Steve Jobs as a self-made entrepreneur, who he said created jobs without government aid.
“We didn’t have to give him any money or create a TIF district or give him a forgivable loan,” Ranzau said. “All we had to do was give him the freedom and liberty to live his life and to accomplish his dreams.”
In fact, Apple has been a major recipient of government aid.
Most recently, the company made national headlines in 2009 when it asked for and received a package of state, county and city incentives — valued at $300 million over 30 years — to build a $1 billion data center in Maiden, N.C.
After Ranzau raised his point about Jobs and Apple, commission Chairman David Unruh wound down the debate.
“OK, we’ve had a good discussion, I guess,” he said.