Friday’s groundbreaking of a new Warren Theater and renovation of the existing theater in west Wichita provide an opportunity to revisit some of the public policy issues surrounding Wichita city government and its intervention in the economy in the name of economic development.
Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer and Vice Mayor Jeff Longwell claim that the economic development incentives or subsidies offered to Warren do not cost Wichita taxpayers anything.
Reading comments left to stories at various media outlets, there is definitely a problem with citizens understanding the nature of the city’s industrial revenue bond program. There is no money being lent by the city, as many citizens seem to believe. Instead, the benefit of the program is the escape from paying property taxes and possibly sales taxes. The fact that tax forgiveness is mixed in with a private loan or bond purchase is definitely a source of confusion. The city should seek to simplify this program, if it intends to continue this practice.
But what about the claim that tax forgiveness does not cost other taxpayers? Will the new theater make use of city services such as fire and police protection? Will employees of the theater send their children to public schools? Vice mayor Longwell says that the city is not adding new police officers because of the new theater, so there is no additional cost for police protection. At the margin, that may be true — each additional house or building does not require a new policeman be hired. But at some time, additional city services and personnel will be required.
The city’s practice of liberally granting tax abatements goes against the constant refrain that we must “build up the tax base.” The city’s position is that by “investing” in tax breaks, the city will gain more revenue in the future.
The fallacy of the city’s investment philosophy can easily be seen. When the city grants tax abatements, there is a cost-benefit analysis that accompanies the proposal. The rationale of this analysis that by giving up tax revenue now, more will flow in at some future time.
That’s the source of the fallacy. The return to the city and other governmental units is more tax revenue. Is it the purpose of the city to generate more and more tax revenue? Is it productive to grant one taxpayer favored status so that other hapless taxpayers can be soaked instead?
When a business invests, it does so in order to increase its productive capacity so that it can earn higher future profits, those profits — or losses — being the measure of success of the investment. Government has no ability to calculate profit and loss, and therefore has no way to judge whether its investment has been wise and productive.
There is also, of course, the concept that private business investment is voluntary, while the action the city takes is not voluntary. Citizens must comply.
The companies that receive tax breaks are often prominent companies that ask for large tax abatements. It is worth considerable time and effort — and campaign contributions — for these companies to pursue these benefits. Small companies, however, often don’t fit into the various programs the city has. Instead, they face additional taxes to pay for the taxes the city doesn’t collect when it grants incentives and subsidies.
Recently Alan Cobb wrote of the harm that targeted incentives cause, using Detroit as an example: “While state and local government poured incentives into the Big Three’s trough, the marginal costs of doing business for everyone else crept up.” See Wichita targeted economic development should end.
An aspect of the incentive or subsidy package granted in this case is a fixed, negotiated, growth in property taxes the renovated theater will pay. There are a few points that deserve discussion. First, the base taxable value for the theater is the present value. The theater owner, however, is spending several million dollars on a renovation of that theater. This, according to the Sedgwick County Appraisers Office, would increase the taxable value of the theater by a large amount.
But based on the deal struck with the City of Wichita, this increase in value will not figure into the base taxable value and therefore, will not affect the taxes (PILOT, actually) the theater owner will pay.
Further, the rate of growth in value, 2.3 percent per year, is lower than what might be expected for commercial property to increase in value in many years. This fixed, predictable rate of growth is reminiscent of last year’s Proposition K proposal. The Wichita Eagle rejected this proposal, editorializing: “Over time, this system could result in significant disparities and a disconnect from actual market values, thus likely violating the Kansas Constitution’s requirement of a ‘uniform and equal basis of valuation.'”
But in this case one politically-favored business was able to receive this benefit. These special deals breed justifiable cynicism and distrust of not only City Hall politicians and bureaucrats but businesses that seek this form of pork-barrel spending through the tax system.
Finally, the payments the existing theater will make are not taxes, but payment in lieu of taxes, or PILOT. These payments are different in character from regular property taxes. Instead of falling under the Kansas property tax law regarding payment and possible sale of the property to pay taxes if the taxpayer falls behind for long enough, PILOTS are more in the form of a contract between the city and the taxpayer. If the taxpayer were to fail to pay, the city would have to sue for breach of contract. If the city should prevail in such a suit, it would stand in line with other creditors instead of taking a preferred position as in a tax sale.
This is, of course, assuming the city would choose to pursue such a lawsuit. Nothing would require it to do so. As the city has in the past bailed out this theater owner with a no-interest and low-interest loan, we could easily imagine the city deciding to let these missing or late PILOT payments slide by.
This too assumes that failure to pay PILOT payments as agreed would become public knowledge. The Sedgwick County Treasurer’s office prints lists of delinquent property taxpayers. There is no corresponding list of delinquent PILOT payments.