In Sunday’s Wichita Eagle, Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer penned a piece that states his belief in the importance of downtown and prepares the people of Wichita for the start of a prescriptive planning process, with accompanying subsidy to politically-favored developers willing to fulfill the plan.
The mayor used the word “vibrant” twice. Asking citizens a question like “Would you like to have a vibrant downtown?” is meaningless. Who doesn’t? It’s only when the question is accompanied by context that citizens can start to understand how they should answer.
For example, in the mayor’s article, he mentions the use of special assessment financing that funded suburban infrastructure, and that this is not sufficient for downtown needs. This statement reveals a misunderstanding by the mayor about the various forms of financing that might be used to help development.
Special assessment financing means that the city spends money to build something, like the new street to serve a site where someone wants to build a house or a shopping center. The cost of this street, plus interest, is added to the property’s tax bill over a period of years. The property owner doesn’t get anything for free.
But in the forms of financing that the mayor and city hall planners favor for downtown, developers do get something for free. Under tax increment financing (TIF), developers get to use their property taxes to pay for the same infrastructure that everyone else has to pay for. That’s because in TIF, the increment in property taxes are used to pay off bonds that were issued for the exclusive benefit of a development. Or, as in the case with a new form of TIF called pay-as-you-go, the increment in property taxes are simply given back to the developer. (Which leads to the question: why even pay at all?)
Some deny that TIF directly enriches the developer. They’ll make arguments such as “it’s only used for infrastructure and eligible expenses” or “it’s not lending, it’s bonding” or “it wouldn’t happen but for TIF” or the biggest lie: TIF doesn’t have any cost. But despite these claims, TIF has a cost, and it does directly enrich the developer. That’s its entire purpose; its reason for being. If TIF didn’t enrich the developer, how does it change something that is claimed to be not economically feasible into something that is?
While city leaders say that public participation in the revitalization of downtown is to be limited, we should be cautious and skeptical. Goody Clancy planners have said that public participation will be limited to TIF. This is bad in its own right and should be opposed on its merits.
We need to be skeptical of the mayor and downtown planners because there isn’t enough TIF money available to do what they want to do. I fully expect a citywide sales tax, probably in the amount of one cent per dollar, to be proposed for the benefit of downtown subsidized developers. City leaders speak fondly of such a tax that Oklahoma City has used for many years.
City leaders have already shown themselves to be not averse to imposing additional sales taxes in Wichitans and our visitors, having granted several Community Improvement Districts the ability to charge up to an additional two cents per dollar sales tax. This means that when visitors check out of the Fairfield Inn in downtown Wichita, they’ll be faced with a sales tax rate of 9.3 percent. That’s in addition to the six percent guest tax, which in the case of this hotel is collected for the exclusive benefit of itself, rather than funding general government and tourism activities.
More community improvement districts are in the works. Wichita may soon be peppered with them.
No faith in free markets means no faith in people
The unwillingness of Wichita city leaders to let Wichitans freely decide where they live, and Wichita businesses freely decide where to locate, is a sign of lack of confidence in free markets and the people of Wichita. Because Wichitans do not choose to live and locate their business firms where politicians like Carl Brewer and Janet Miller — to name just two — and city hall bureaucrats like Wichita city manager Bob Layton and Wichita economic development director Allen Bell want them to, they deliver a slap in the face. It appears in the form of a vision backed up by planning, regulation, and the power to dish out favorable tax treatment, as outlined above.
Once formed, a vision is a powerful force. Randal O’Toole, author of The Best-Laid Plans: How Government Planning Harms Your Quality of Life, Your Pocketbook, and Your Future has written about visionaries and government planning:
The worst thing about having a vision is that it confers upon the visionary a moral absolutism: only highly prescriptive regulation can ensure that the vision overcomes an uncaring populace responding to a free market that planners do not really trust. But the more prescriptive the plan, the more likely it is that the plan will be wrong, and such errors will prove extremely costly for the city or region that tries to implement the plan.
An example of planning that many see as having gone wrong is the government planning that led to growth on the city’s fringes. An example that helped make this possible is the government’s decision to build the northeast expressway also known as K-96. Acts of government like this are claimed to have caused the demise of downtown, the very situation that planners now want to correct.
With government making “mistakes” (their claim, not mine) like this on a grand scale, why are we willing to trust that politicians and bureaucrats are making correct decisions now? Especially when you look at the campaign finance reports of most city council members and see the same names giving repeatedly to all council members, with these same names appearing repeatedly before the council asking for their subsidy. This is not a decision making process that gives citizens confidence.
It bears repeating: the existence of the downtown planning process tells Wichitans they’ve made a mistake in where they chose to buy a home or build a business. Not only will Wichitans have to pay for what they freely chose, they’re going to be asked to pay again so that those with purportedly superior vision can have their way.