Wednesday’s decision by the Sedgwick County Commission to grant a forgivable loan of $48,000 to The Golf Warehouse is yet another example of local government relying on corporate welfare as economic development, and exposes how little deliberation is given to making these decisions.
This subsidy was promoted by the county and TGW’s consultant as necessary to persuade the applicant company to expand its operations in Wichita rather than Indiana, where the company has other operations and had also received an offer of subsidy. The same argument had been made to the Wichita City Council in May 10th, and it was successful in persuading all council members but one to vote in favor of granting a forgivable loan of the same amount as the county.
At the county commission meeting, commissioners received a presentation by Leslie Wagner, Director of Project Management and Development for Ginovus, an economic development and site location advisory services firm working on behalf of TGW.
While The Golf Warehouse was started in Wichita by entrepreneurs, Wagner told commissioners that the company is now owned by Redcats, a Paris, France company. That acquisition took place in 2006, she said.
A focus of Wagner’s presentation was how large and successful an enterprise Redcats is, with $4.8 billion in annual sales revenue and over 14,000 employees. As to TGW specifically, Wagner said it offers the largest and broadest selection of golf products in the world, and has expanded to included baseball, softball, and soccer products.
Right away some might be inclined to ask why, with the company so large and successful, local governments find it necessary to prop up this company with public assistance.
According to Wagner, TGW will add 105 new employees by 2015, and the company’s average annual payroll by then will be $9,995,000.
The argument for subsidy
In her presentation, Wagner listed the incentives offered to TGW by both Indiana and Kansas. But she did not supply the value of each incentive, which makes the comparison largely meaningless. Additionally, the list of the incentives and subsidies offered by the State of Kansas was not complete. Further, some of the incentives offered by Indiana are already present in Kansas.
For example, one incentive offered by Indiana was an abatement on personal property tax, which Wagner indicated was a factor in favor of that state. But Kansas does not tax business personal property, that is, business machinery and equipment newly purchased, leased, or moved into Kansas. This ranges from desks, computers, and copiers to large pieces of machinery and equipment. The incentive offered by Indiana, therefore, is already in place in Kansas without companies needing to ask for it, and Wagner should not have included this as a distinguishing factor between Indiana and Kansas.
In addition, Kansas has added “expensing,” which allows businesses to depreciate purchases in one year instead of several, which reduces Kansas state income tax. As TGW expands and makes these purchases, it will be able to take advantage of this new provision in the Kansas tax code.
Wagner also mentioned an Indiana program called EDGE (Economic Development for a Growing Economy), which rebates employees’ state income tax withholding back to the company. We have that in Kansas, too. It’s called Promoting Employment Across Kansas (PEAK), and the range of situations where this program can be applied has been expanded by this year’s legislature. This, again, is an example where an incentive offered by Indiana and promoted by Wagner as a reason as to why the county must grant a subsidy of its own to TGW is already present in Kansas.
Another part of Wagner’s presentation that deserves a second look is her analysis of the economic impact of TGW. Wagner said that over ten years the payroll — the wages paid to its employees in Wichita — of TGW would be $100,623,437, with a “conservative” apportionment to the county of $50,311,718.
She then showed the commission a slide where she computed the return on the county’s investment. For the “return,” she used the $50,311,718 figure of payroll that she attributed to the county. For the “investment,” she used $96,000, which is the sum of the forgivable loans from both Wichita and Sedgwick County. (Why she used both entity’s investment but only county payroll, I don’t know.)
Her calculations from these numbers produced a return on investment of 524 percent. “If I were making an investment, that’s a phenomenal return, and I’d make that one all day long,” she told commissioners.
But her actual calculation should have been as follows ($50,311,718 – $96,000) / $96,000 * 100 = 52,308 percent for the rate of return, if she was looking to fluff up her numbers as much as possible.
But even that calculation wouldn’t make economic or financial sense. The $50,311,718 is returned over a period of 10 years, so the receipt of that money needs to be spread over that time. Then, since long time periods are involved, the returns in future years need to be discounted, because a dollar expected to be received in ten years is not worth as much as a dollar received this year. I made a few other assumptions and used Excel’s internal rate of return function to compute a rate of return of 5,241 percent.
This tremendous rate of return, of course, makes no economic sense either. The $50,311,718 used as the “return” to the county is not that at all. This money is wages paid to workers. It belongs to them, not to the county. True, the county will get some of that in the form of sales taxes these workers pay as they make purchases within the county, and perhaps in other forms of taxes. Using an estimate of that number would make sense on some level, and that is the type of reasoning the Wichita State University Center for Economic Development and Business Research uses to compute the cost-benefit figures the city and county often rely upon in making decisions.
But the figures and calculations Wagner used to make the case for TGW make absolutely no economic or financial sense. Worse than being merely absurd, they are deceptive. Compounding the error, elected officials such as commission chair Dave Unruh cited them as a factor in making his vote in favor of granting the forgivable loan.
Completing her presentation, Wagner said “Perhaps as important, it’s goodwill. … Does the state want us to stay, does the community want us to stay, and are they willing to help us grow?” Brad Wolansky, CEO of TGW, said the loan is part of the “element of partnership” between the county and TGW, which he said was indicative of the county’s support. This is the same attitude expressed at the Wichita City Council meeting: Many of these companies requesting incentives and subsidies believe they deserve some sort of reward for investing in Wichita and creating jobs. The profits of entrepreneurs or capitalists are no longer sufficient, it seems, for some companies.
In remarks from the bench, Sedgwick County Commissioner Richard Ranzau questioned the need for this incentive, citing the recent example of a Save-A-Lot store which will be built by a developer without incentives, after the original developer failed to acquire all the incentive he asked for. Video of his remarks and an exchange with Wagner is below.
In his remarks, Commissioner Jim Skelton said this decision is a “no-brainer,” and that he was proud to do this for the community. Chairman Unruh said “we’re competing with someone else for this company.” He referenced the “great return” on the county’s investment, and that he could not find a reason not to support it.
All commissioners except Ranzau voted to grant the forgivable loan, with Karl Peterjohn absent.
City and county information not complete
The forgivable loan subsidy granted by both Wichita and Sedgwick County is not the only subsidy TGW will receive. An inquiry to the Kansas Department of Commerce indicates that from the state of Kansas, TGW will receive $125,000 from the Kansas Economic Opportunity Initiatives Fund, $125,000 in Kansas Industrial Retraining, $50,000 in Kansas Industrial Training, $96,000 in sales tax savings, $315,918 in personal property tax savings, and $623,796 from the High Performance Incentive Program, for total incentives from the state of $1,310,714.
These state incentives were not mentioned by the county. The value is also much higher than the City of Wichita reported in its material for its May 10th meeting when the city approved its forgivable loan to TGW. At that time, city documents reported the value of state subsidies at $275,000, a figure just 21 percent of the value reported by the Department of Commerce.
Corporate welfare, again
This episode, where subsidy is heaped on a company who presents a threat — real or imagined — of leaving Wichita or expanding elsewhere, represents local officials not grounding a decision on actual facts. The wild claims of return on investment made by the company’s representative simply can’t be believed. Her information about the incentives offered and available, as well as that from the City of Wichita, is incomplete or misleading.
With some time to analyze the claims made by Wagner (and others who appear in similar situations), we can expose them for what they are. But commissioners — city council members too — often don’t have time or expertise to examine the facts. Commissioner Ranzau told me that he did not receive Wagner’s slides before the meeting. The information delivered to the council by Sherdeill Breathett, Economic Development Specialist for the county, did not appear in the new agenda system the county recently implemented. During meetings there is not time to analyze calculations or examine the claims made by presenters.
We have to ask, however, if local government officials have the desire to examine these presentations and claims. Once the veneer of economic development hucksterism — thin as it is — is stripped away, we are left with what Ranzau has stated several times from his position on the commission bench: a simple transfer of one person’s money to another using the force of government as the agent. This reality of corporate welfare is something that officials would rather not recognize, and it’s not economic development in my book.