Wichita should reject Bowllagio TIF district

Update: Video of some testimony from the meeting is here.

This week the Wichita City Council will consider more economic development through the creation of a tax increment financing (TIF) district. For the good of the city, the council should reject this proposal.

Supporters of TIF — besides the obvious motivations of the developers who are directly enriched by them — point to the jobs and development that they say TIF creates. But there’s plenty of evidence to the contrary, on both jobs and development. Supporters also say TIF has no cost, which, if true, calls into question the entire justification for taxation. This matter also — again — illustrates the need for pay-to-play laws, as some council members will be voting whether to directly enrich their campaign contributors.

The city documents for this proposal are at Wichita Public Hearing on the Establishment of the Maize 54 Redevelopment District (Tax Increment Financing).

Effect of TIF on development

As far as increased development: Yes, that generally happens within the TIF district. But what about the overall city? The answer is that TIF is harmful. Richard F. Dye and David F. Merriman have studied tax increment financing extensively. Their paper The Effects of Tax Increment Financing on Economic Development bluntly states the overall impact of TIF: “We find clear and consistent evidence that municipalities that adopt TIF grow more slowly after adoption than those that do not.”

Later in the same paper the authors conclude: “These findings suggest that TIF trades off higher growth in the TIF district for lower growth elsewhere. This hypothesis is bolstered by other empirical findings.”

Summarizing, the authors write:

In summary, the empirical evidence suggests that TIF adoption has a real cost for municipal growth rates. Municipalities that elect to adopt TIF stimulate the growth of blighted areas at the expense of the larger town. We doubt that most municipal decision-makers are aware of this tradeoff or that they would willingly sacrifice significant municipal growth to create TIF districts. Our results present an opportunity to ponder the issue of whether, and how much, overall municipal growth should be sacrificed to encourage the development of blighted areas.

In their later article Tax Increment Financing: A Tool for Local Economic Development, Dye and Merriman further explain the results of their research:

TIF districts grow much faster than other areas in their host municipalities. TIF boosters or naive analysts might point to this as evidence of the success of tax increment financing, but they would be wrong. Observing high growth in an area targeted for development is unremarkable.

So TIFs are good for the favored development that receives the subsidy — not a surprising finding. It’s what elected officials, bureaucrats, and newspaper editorial writers can see and focus on. But what about the rest of the city? Continuing from the same study:

If the use of tax increment financing stimulates economic development, there should be a positive relationship between TIF adoption and overall growth in municipalities. This did not occur. If, on the other hand, TIF merely moves capital around within a municipality, there should be no relationship between TIF adoption and growth. What we find, however, is a negative relationship. Municipalities that use TIF do worse.

We find evidence that the non-TIF areas of municipalities that use TIF grow no more rapidly, and perhaps more slowly, than similar municipalities that do not use TIF. (emphasis added)

So if we are concerned about overall growth in Wichita, we need to realize that TIF simply shifts development from one place to another. The overall impact, according to uncontroverted research, is negative: less growth, not more.

TIF and jobs

When justifying the use of tax increment financing (TIF districts) elected officials, bureaucrats, and newspaper editorial writers often point to the jobs that will be created. Indeed, when a TIF district is created, economic activity usually happens within the district, and it’s easy to observe people working at jobs.

But when deciding whether TIF is a wise economic development policy, we need to look beyond the boundaries of the TIF district and look at the effect on the entire economy of the city or region.

One person who has done this is Paul F. Byrne of Washburn University. He authored a recent report titled Does Tax Increment Financing Deliver on Its Promise of Jobs? The Impact of Tax Increment Financing on Municipal Employment Growth. In its abstract we find this conclusion regarding the impact of TIF on jobs:

Increasingly, municipal leaders justify their use of tax increment financing (TIF) by touting its role in improving municipal employment. However, empirical studies on TIF have primarily examined TIF’s impact on property values, ignoring the claim that serves as the primary justification for its use. This article addresses the claim by examining the impact of TIF adoption on municipal employment growth in Illinois, looking for both general impact and impact specific to the type of development supported. Results find no general impact of TIF use on employment. However, findings suggest that TIF districts supporting industrial development may have a positive effect on municipal employment, whereas TIF districts supporting retail development have a negative effect on municipal employment. These results are consistent with industrial TIF districts capturing employment that would have otherwise occurred outside of the adopting municipality and retail TIF districts shifting employment within the municipality to more labor-efficient retailers within the TIF district. (emphasis added)

While this research might be used to support a TIF district for industrial development, TIF in Wichita is primarily used for retail development. When looking at the entire picture, the effect on employment of tax increment financing used for retail development is negative.

We must conclude that TIF does not meet the goals of increased development and/or jobs, if we consider the impact on everyone. What we’re left with is the well-known problem that public choice economics — the economics of politics — has described: Concentrated benefits and dispersed costs. It’s the reason why those who seek enrichment at Wichita City Hall and other governments make so many political campaign contributions.

TIF is not free money

Supporters of TIF usually contend that TIF has no cost. This is not the case. This new development will consume fire, police, and other governmental services, but will not contribute its share of property taxes to pay for these. Instead, some portion of the property taxes will be redirected back to the TIF district to benefit the developers. Others will have to pay taxes to make up this deficit, or will have to accept a reduced level of service. See Tax increment financing is not free money.

There’s also the “but-for” argument: without the benefit of TIF, the project will not be built, and therefore no tax revenue would be received. It’s a powerful argument, if it were really true. But those who seek this type of government funding can always find a way to make their financial projections “prove” the need for TIF money. Governments then take them at their word.

We might ask ourselves this question: If TIF is truly without cost, why not have more TIF districts? Why not offer TIF for all new development?

Maxwell, in particular

We also need to look at the characteristics of this applicant. The Wichita Business Journal reported this regarding a company Maxwell owned:

Pixius proposes to repay, over a 10-year period, $1.3 million of a $6.4 million loan from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Rural Utilities Service, according to court documents. The loan was part of a 2002 Farm Bill pilot program that loaned more than $180 million to ISPs to expand Internet service to rural areas.

“To my memory … Pixius is the only one (to receive a loan) that’s had to file bankruptcy to work out of its situation,” says Claiborn Crain, USDA spokesman.

When the government helped out Maxwell in the past, it cost taxpayers $5.1 million in a loan discharged in bankruptcy. His company is set apart from other similar companies in that, according to the USDA spokesman, only Maxwell’s declared bankruptcy.

I suggest that Maxwell has had his turn at the government funding trough. Taxpayers can’t afford to give him another.

Wichita Public Hearing on the Establishment of the Maize 54 Redevelopment District (TaxIncrement Financing)


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