Remarks to be delivered to the Wichita City Council, July 8, 2008.
Mr. Mayor and members of the council, today I will not discuss the desirability of tax increment financing (TIF) districts in general, or the merits of this one in particular. I’ll leave that for the August 12 public hearing. Instead, I wish to express my concerns about a thorny situation involving the applicant and overlapping governmental jurisdictions.
In Wichita, Reverend Kevass Harding, a member of the USD 259 (Wichita public school district) board is also a real estate developer. His development group is asking the City of Wichita for the creation of a tax increment financing district (New life for Ken-Mar Shopping Center: Harding plans to revitalize 13th Street mall, March 14, 2008 Wichita Business Journal).
In Kansas, when a city creates a TIF district, the affected county and school district have 30 days to veto its creation. When Wichita creates TIF districts, the county and school district usually agree. To my knowledge, there has been no veto by either. These overlapping taxing jurisdictions don’t have to pass a resolution to agree to the TIF district. All they have to do is not pass a resolution that vetoes it.
In this case, Reverend Harding is asking Wichita for relief from paying some of the property tax for his real estate development. (Some might disagree that the TIF district provides relief from paying taxes, but that’s not important for now. It is undoubtedly a benefit of some type, and that’s what matters.) Then the Wichita public school board, Reverend Harding being a member of that, has to give its agreement for the TIF district to proceed.
The problem is that the way the school board indicates its agreement to the establishment of the TIF district is by doing nothing. Only passive agreement is required. Negative action is what is required. If the school board was required to pass a resolution agreeing to the TIF district, Reverend Harding could declare a conflict of interest and sit out the vote. That’s positive action. That happened last week in this very chamber.
But since no vote is required by Reverend Harding or his board — only passive assent — how can we ask him to recuse himself? Can we insist that he cease to do nothing? That’s the problem with requiring someone to take negative action.
So what do we do?
The best solution is for Reverend Harding to withdraw his request for the creation of the TIF district that benefits his development. Then there is no problem with conflicts of interest. This is also congruent with Reverend Harding’s votes to increase taxes while a member of the school board. His business would pay the same taxes he demands others pay.
Failing that, one way we could handle this situation is that the city could ask the school board to agree to pass a resolution agreeing to the TIF, even through they aren’t required to do this. Then Reverend Harding could publicly acknowledge his conflict of interest and step aside.
But should the City of Wichita even care about this? Is it the city’s responsibility to ensure that other governmental entities act ethically and transparently?
In the end, it may not matter, as to my knowledge, neither Sedgwick County nor the Wichita public school district has vetoed the creation of a TIF district passed by the City of Wichita. But I think the citizens of Wichita and USD 259 would appreciate this situation resolved in a way that avoids all conflicts of interest.