At today’s meeting of the Wichita City Council, discussion by council members and their vote may signal a change in the city’s stance toward economic development incentives.
At issue was a request for extension of economic development incentives for a Wichita company. Five years ago the city council approved an economic development package for the company that included a tax abatement. As is the city’s policy, the council revisits the issue in five years to see if the company has meet its goal commitments. In the case of this company, one commitment — the building of a new facility — was met. The other commitment — creation of a certain number of jobs — was met early on during the period of the tax abatement, but employment has been declining in recent years, and employment is currently 100 jobs below the goal.
Recently the city council adopted new guidelines for companies that are not meeting their goals at the time of review. These guidelines make it easier for companies to qualify for the extension of the abatement. If the WSU Current Conditions Index has declined since the awarding of the incentives, the company will qualify for an extension if a majority of the goals are met. A company will also qualify for extension if their peak job creation numbers exceeded the goal, even if the number has fallen, as is the case with the company under consideration today.
Based on the new guidelines, city staff recommended to approve the extension of the incentives.
Council member Lavonta Williams asked if it was possible if, as an company receiving an incentive, could “I hire five people today and fire them by Friday and then meet my criteria?” The answer by city economic development director Allen Bell is that the policy contains no such guideline as to minimum period of employment.
Wichita city manager Bob Layton interjected that staff’s recommendation to approve the extension is a difficult one to make, as this company is in a declining pattern of employment. Additionally, the newly calculated benefit-to-cost ratios are low, and he said he is uncomfortable with that: “We’re actually subsidizing this business, so to speak, or others are subsidizing or bearing their load for debt service.”
Council member Sue Schlapp asked a question not covered by policy: if we deny the extension today, and next year the company improves its situation, could they come back and ask for the extension of the tax abatement then? There is no definitive answer to this question at this time, according to Bell and Layton.
Schlapp added that it seems like we’re “lowering the bar all the time” as to the granting of incentives.
Council member Paul Gray remarked that the council makes itself look bad in these situations, as it always grants extensions even though the city has created policies that should hold companies accountable to their committed goals. The reason for awarding the incentives, he said, was for the increase in employment, and that employment level has not been kept. “We need to start taking a harder stand on this, as we’re going to run out of money if we keep giving it all away.” Vice mayor Jim Skelton agreed.
No one from the public was there to speak on this matter.
Gray made a motion to deny the staff recommendation of approval of the extension. Mayor Carl Brewer said that this vote, if it proceeds in the direction it appears to be going, will change the direction of many things that affect businesses in Wichita. He said that the intent of the council is to start holding individuals accountable, and there’s not been a track record of that. It’s been worse since the economy entered the recession, he said. He urged council members to make sure they know which way they’re going with this action. “This will be the direction that we’ll be going as we start working on policy, and it will be effective for everyone, whether it be large or whether it be small. … Just making sure that when we press that button and we head down this path, that we know what we’re doing.”
The vote was 6 to 1 in favor of Gray’s motion, with the mayor being the lone “No” vote.
This action by the Wichita city council, being nearly unanimous, is very much different from its action just one week ago, when it employed one new method plus several existing methods to heap millions in subsidy on a downtown hotel developer.
Today’s discussion is another illustration of just how difficult it is to pick winners and losers, and how difficult it is to choose which companies the city should invest in. This is why I have recommended that Wichita grant tax abatements on all new capital investment.
Today’s action is especially cruel to the subject company. In the past, city staff has argued that withdrawing tax abatements when a company is struggling is harmful. In December 2008, economic development director Bell said this regarding a company that had not met its performance commitments: “I don’t think it would be productive at this time to further penalize them — as the market has already penalized them — by putting them back on the tax roles at this time.” This is further evidence that taxes are harmful to business and economic growth.
Council member Williams’ question about hiring and then quickly firing employees indicates that she must not be familiar with the costs of hiring and firing. Furthermore, a company’s unemployment insurance premiums are based on its history, and actions like this would certainly raise premiums by a large amount.