Wichita city council discusses economic development incentives, again

At this week’s meeting of the Wichita City Council, underperforming companies that have received economic incentives was at issue.

Wichita grants incentives — usually in the form of an escape from paying property taxes — to companies. Usually there are conditions attached to the incentives, such as a certain amount of capital investment or employment targets. Recently — and in the past two or so years — several companies that received incentives have not met employment goals. Should the city rescind the tax breaks in these cases? Or should there be recognition that there’s a tough economy at the moment, and should the company be excused from meeting the goals it pledged?

During a period of questions from the bench, council member Sue Schlapp remarked: “We have to be flexible, don’t we? … Especially in today’s economy, we need to be very careful that we’re not too rigid in what we’re doing.”

Council member Jeff Longwell said he’d like to see something that rewards companies that bring in business from outside our community. Economic development head Allen Bell answered that the policy is limited to companies that bring in wealth from outside. Businesses that are here because their customers are here are not eligible for economic incentives, he said.

Longwell also expressed concern about companies that use temporary employees. Should that increase in payroll be included as a benefit, even if the employees are only temps? Bell said yes, even though these jobs are not as good as direct hire placements. Wichita City Manager Bob Layton interjected that we shouldn’t count seasonal peak employee ramp-up in benefit calculations.

Longwell added that we ought to include the fact that some companies drive up hotel occupancy rates due to the nature of their business. Bell said that this is a factor in the WSU analysis.

Vice-mayor Jim Skelton inquired about details of the model that WSU uses to calculate the economic benefit of incentives. These calculations, Bell said, are required by the Kansas Legislature. The model presently used is unique to WSU. It focuses on the fiscal impact that an economic development project has on cities, counties, school districts, and the state. It takes into account jobs created, capital that is invested, and other factors. It includes such factors as the need for additional police and other government services, additional sales and bed tax, and other revenue sources. It then performs a present value calculation and produces a ratio. A value greater than one means the benefits exceed the costs.

City manager Layton said that these incentives represent a contract between the business and the city. The business promises to grow the economy, and the city makes an investment in the company. The council presently is struggling with how to judge the performance of companies that have received incentives in a down economy. The WSU index makes sense, he said. If economic conditions are poor, we now have a tool to judge the performance of the companies that received incentives. There are now extenuating circumstances, he said.

Mayor Carl Brewer said that we recognize there are challenges, and that in an ideal world we shouldn’t have to provide incentives. But he said we have several options: Be competitive and provide incentives and fight to keep what we have, or don’t provide incentives and see what happens. He said we know what would happen in that case. Businesses will go where they can get these incentives, he said, and we can’t argue that. There will always be incentives, he said, and we have to be competitive.

The council unanimously approved a revision to the policy that recognizes down periods of economic activity. Then, it approved the extension of tax breaks to three companies that had not met all their performance goals. Passage was not unanimous in two cases, with some council members voting against the extension of the incentives. Dion Lefler’s reporting in the Wichita Eagle is at Wichita City Council eases rules on tax abatements.

Analysis

Contrary to the belief of the mayor, council members, and city hall bureaucrats, economic development incentives aren’t all they’re promoted to be. The state of Kansas spent some $1.3 billion on incentives over five years. In a recent report produced by the Kansas Legislative Division of Post Audit, one of the summary points is this: “Most studies of economic development incentives suggest these incentives don’t have a significant impact on economic growth.” See In Wichita, let’s have economic development for all for more on this report and a link to the document.

There is an interesting academic paper titled The Failures of Economic Development Incentives, published in Journal of the American Planning Association. A few quotes from the study, with emphasis added:

Given the weak effects of incentives on the location choices of businesses at the interstate level, state governments and their local governments in the aggregate probably lose far more revenue, by cutting taxes to firms that would have located in that state anyway than they gain from the few firms induced to change location.

On the three major questions — Do economic development incentives create new jobs? Are those jobs taken by targeted populations in targeted places? Are incentives, at worst, only moderately revenue negative? — traditional economic development incentives do not fare well. It is possible that incentives do induce significant new growth, that the beneficiaries of that growth are mainly those who have greatest difficulty in the labor market, and that both states and local governments benefit fiscally from that growth. But after decades of policy experimentation and literally hundreds of scholarly studies, none of these claims is clearly substantiated. Indeed, as we have argued in this article, there is a good chance that all of these claims are false.

The most fundamental problem is that many public officials appear to believe that they can influence the course of their state or local economies through incentives and subsidies to a degree far beyond anything supported by even the most optimistic evidence. We need to begin by lowering their expectations about their ability to micromanage economic growth and making the case for a more sensible view of the role of government — providing the foundations for growth through sound fiscal practices, quality public infrastructure, and good education systems — and then letting the economy take care of itself.

On the surface of things, to the average person, it would seem that spending (or granting tax breaks, it’s the same thing) to attract new businesses makes a lot of sense. It’s a win-win deal, backers say. Everyone benefits. This is why it is so appealing to politicians. It lets them trumpet their achievements doing something that no one should reasonably disagree with. After all, who could be against jobs and prosperity? But the evidence that these schemes work is lacking, as this legislative audit and article show.

I have suggested to the city council that a broad-based tax abatement on new capital investment could propel economic growth in Wichita. See Wichita universal tax exemption could propel growth.

But a plan like this doesn’t give bureaucrats much to do, and gives politicians little to crow about to their constituents at election time. All it’s good for is the people who want economic growth.


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