Industrial Revenue Bonds are a confusing economic development program. We see evidence that citizens are concerned that the city or county is in the business of lending money to companies, when that is not the case. You see this misunderstanding revealed in comments left to newspaper articles reporting the issuance of IRBs, where comment writers complain that the city shouldn’t be in the business of lending companies money.
IRBs are not a loan by government
A recent Wichita city council agenda packet regarding an IRB issue explains that the city is not lending the applicant money. In fact, no one is lending, in the net: “Spirit AeroSystems, Inc. intends to purchase the bonds itself, through direct placement, and the bonds will not be reoffered for sale to the public.” If a company wants to lend itself money, this is a private transaction that should be of no public interest or concern.
In 2010 when movie theater owner Bill Warren and partners sought IRBs, city documents held this: “American Luxury Cinemas, Inc. proposes to privately place the $16,000,000 taxable industrial revenue bond with Intrust Bank, with whom there is a long-standing banking relationship.” Again, if a bank wants to lend someone money, this a private transaction that should be of no public interest or concern.
The reason for IRBs
The reason why IRB transactions take place is simple: tax avoidance. That’s the real story of Industrial Revenue Bonds: Companies escape paying the property and sales taxes that you and I — as well as most business firms — must pay.
It’s not uncommon for the issuing company to buy the bonds, as in the case of Spirit. So why issue the bonds? The agenda packet has the answer: “The bond financed property will be eligible for sales tax exemption and property tax exemption for a term of ten years, subject to fulfillment of the conditions of the City’s public incentives policy.”
City documents didn’t give the amount of tax Spirit will avoid paying, so we’re left to surmise. Bonds could be issued up to $59.5 million. Taxable business property of that value would generate an annual tax bill of around $1.8 million per year, and Spirit would not pay that for up to ten years. For sales taxes, if all the purchased property was subject to sales tax, that one-time tax exemption would be $4.3 million. These are the upper bounds of the tax savings Spirit Aerosystems may receive. Its actual savings will probably be lower, but still substantial.
In the case of the Warren theater, the IRBs provided sales and property tax exemptions, although the property tax exemption was partially offset by a payment in lieu of taxes agreement.
IRBs are a confusing economic development program. It sounds like a loan from the city or state, but it’s not. The purpose is to convey tax avoidance.
Here’s language from the Wichita ordinance that was passed to implement the Spirit bonds: “The Bonds, together with the interest thereon, are not general obligations of the City, but are special obligations payable (except to the extent paid out of moneys attributable to the proceeds derived from the sale of the Bonds or to the income from the temporary investment thereof) solely from the lease payments under the Lease, and the Bond Fund and other moneys held by the Trustee, as provided in the Indenture. Neither the credit nor the taxing power of the State of Kansas or of any political subdivision of such State is pledged to the payment of the principal of the Bonds and premium, if any, and interest thereon or other costs incident thereto.”
So no governmental body has any obligation to pay the bondholders in case of default. But this language hints at another complicating factor of IRBs: The city actually owns the property purchased with the bond proceeds, and leases it to Spirit. Here’s the preamble of the ordinance: “An ordinance approving and authorizing the execution of a lease agreement between Spirit Aerosystems, Inc. and the City of Wichita, Kansas.”
Other language in the ordinance is “WHEREAS, the Company will acquire a leasehold interest in the Project from the City pursuant to said Lease Agreement.” There’s other language detailing the lease.
We create this “imaginary” lease agreement — and that’s what it is, as it doesn’t have the same purpose and economic meaning as most leases — for what purpose? Just so that certain companies can avoid paying taxes.
The City of Wichita does have another program that allows it to exempt these taxes under some circumstances without having to issue bonds. In this case the goal of the program is laid clear: tax avoidance.
The actual economic transaction
IRBs are a confusing program that obfuscates the actual economic transaction. That’s not good public policy, whether or not you agree with the concept of selective tax abatements as economic development.
Similarly, a principle of good tax policy is that those in similar situations should face the same laws. IRBs are contrary to this.
Also, IRBs are generally available only to large companies. There is massive red tape to overcome, as well as fees, such as an annual fee of $2,500 to the city.
Often when IRBs are presented to city councils for approval, there is explanation of what the bond proceeds will be used for. This is curious. It is as though city council members are wise enough to ascertain whether the plans a company has are economically feasible and desirable, and that the council would not grant approval for the IRBS if not.
While we can understand that citizens — with their busy lives — may not be informed or concerned about the complex workings of IRBs, we should expect more from our elected (and paid) officials. But we find often they are not informed.
As an example, in 2004 the Wichita Eagle reported: “In July, the council approved industrial revenue bond financing and a $1.7 million property tax abatement for Genesis Health Clubs. Council members later said they didn’t realize they had also approved a sales-tax break.” (Kolb goal : Full facts in future city deals, September 26, 2004)
Here we see Wichita City Council members not aware of the basic mechanism of a major city program that is frequently used. This is in spite of an informative city web page devoted to IRBs which prominently states: “Generally, property and services acquired with the proceeds of IRBs are eligible for sales tax exemption.”