Wichita drops taxpayer protection clause

To protect itself against self-defeating appeals of property valuation in tax increment financing districts, the City of Wichita once included a protective clause in developer agreements. But this consideration is not present in two proposed agreements.

When the Wichita Eagle reported that a downtown developer represented himself as an agent of the city in order to cut his taxes on publicly owned property he leases in the Old Town Cinema Plaza, city officials were not pleased.

The property in question is located in a tax increment financing district. Incremental tax revenue from the property is earmarked for paying off bonds that were issued for the property’s benefit. If tax revenue is reduced from original projections — perhaps because the tax valuation was appealed — the tax revenue might be insufficient to pay the bonds. City taxpayers are then on the hook.

This is what happened, according to later Eagle reporting: “A special tax district formed by Wichita to assist in the development of the Old Town cinema project can’t cover its debt payments because the developers — including the city itself — petitioned a state court and got their property taxes reduced, records show.”

This week the Wichita city council considers approving a project plan for part of a TIF district in Old Town, the Mosley Avenue Project. It’s contained within the Old Town Cinema Redevelopment District, a tax increment financing (TIF) district. The developer is Mosley Investments, LLC, a development group comprised of David Burk and Steve Barrett, according to city documents.

The involvement of Burk and Barrett is problematic. The downtown developer who the Wichita Eagle said represented himself as an agent of the city without the city’s knowledge or consent was David Burk. Barrett was a partner on the project.

To protect itself when Burk was involved in another TIF-financed project in 2011, the city added language to the developer agreement that prevented appeals of tax valuation, although there was a large loophole included.

But for the Mosley project, there is no such language prohibiting appeals of tax valuation. For another TIF project plan the city will consider the same day, the Union Station project, there is also no such language.

A question posed to city hall but not yet answered is this: Is lack of taxpayer protection an oversight, or is it by design?

More importantly, who in city hall looking out for the interests of taxpayers? Could the generous campaign contributions of Burk and his wife be a factor in this missing taxpayer protection? Or the generous contributions of Key Construction and its executives? (Key Construction is frequently used by Burk.)

Past action by Burk on property in TIF district

In February 2010 the Wichita Eagle reported on the activities of Burk with regard to property he owns in Old Town. Citizens reading these articles might have been alarmed at his actions. Certainly some city hall politicians and bureaucrats were.

The opening sentence of the Wichita Eagle article (Developer appealed taxes on city-owned property) raises the main allegation against Burk: “Downtown Wichita’s leading developer, David Burk, represented himself as an agent of the city — without the city’s knowledge or consent — to cut his taxes on publicly owned property he leases in the Old Town Cinema Plaza, according to court records and the city attorney.”

A number of Wichita city hall officials were not pleased with Burk’s action. According to the Eagle reporting, Burk was not authorized to do what he did: “Officials in the city legal department said that while Burk was within his rights to appeal taxes on another city-supported building in the Cinema Plaza, he did not have authorization to file an appeal on the city-owned parking/retail space he leases. … As for Burk signing documents as the city’s representative, ‘I do have a problem with it,’ said City Attorney Gary Rebenstorf, adding that he intends to investigate further.”

Council member Jeff Longwell was quoted by the Eagle: “‘We should take issue with that,’ he said. ‘If anyone is going to represent the city they obviously have to have, one, the city’s endorsement and … two, someone at the city should have been more aware of what was going on. And if they were, shame on them for not bringing this to the public’s attention.'”

Council member Lavonta Williams was not pleased, either: “‘Right now, it doesn’t look good,’ she said. ‘Are we happy about it? Absolutely not.'”

In a separate article by the Eagle on this issue, we can learn of the reaction by two other city hall officials: “Vice Mayor Jim Skelton said that having city development partners who benefit from tax increment financing appeal for lower property taxes ‘seems like an oxymoron.’ City Manager Robert Layton said that anyone has the right to appeal their taxes, but he added that ‘no doubt that defeats the purpose of the TIF.'”

The manager’s quote is most directly damaging. In the most common form of a tax increment financing (TIF) district, the city borrows money to pay for things that directly enrich the developers, in this case Burk and his partners. Then their increased property taxes — taxes they have to pay anyway — are used to repay the borrowed funds. In essence, a TIF district allows developers to benefit exclusively from their property taxes. For everyone else, their property taxes go to fund the city, county, school district, state, fire district, etc. But not so for property in a TIF district.

This is what is most astonishing about Burk’s action: Having been placed in a rarefied position of receiving many millions in benefits, he still thinks his own taxes are too high.

In response to Burk’s action, the city included a special provision in the agreement for a project in which Burk was involved the next year. This project is the Ambassador Hotel, known at the time as the Douglas Place project. This project is also located within a TIF district and receives the benefit of TIF financing. City documents explained that protests of taxes would not be allowed, but there is a loophole: “In addition, the Developer agrees not to protest the taxes on the building unless the valuation reflects a capitalization rate that exceeds the average rate for boutique hotels as determined by a nationally-recognized hotel appraisal firm.” (Wichita City Council agenda packet, September 13, 2011, page 26.) The agreement and the loophole were expressed in more detail in the agreement on page 138 of the same document.

At the time, city manager Layton told the Wichita Eagle that taxpayers would be protected in future deals: “We’ve taken several safeguards based on the city’s development experience over the last few years, as well as the advice from Goody Clancy and their business partners based on their experience.” He added “We think we’re set to encourage downtown development in a way that provides protection to the taxpayer.”

Now this week Dave Burk comes again before the city council asking for TIF money. But there appears to be nothing in the current agreement to protect taxpayers, as there was in the Douglas Place agreement.

Curiously, Burk is not mentioned by name in the documents prepared for the public hearing on January 6.

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