Recently the City of Wichita formed a TIF (tax increment financing) district to aid a developer who wishes to build in the College Hill neighborhood.
How does a TIF district work? The Wichita Eagle reported: “A TIF district doesn’t cost local governments any existing tax money. It takes property taxes paid on new construction that would ordinarily go into government coffers and redirects it to the bond holders who are financing the project.”
In the present case, the value of the benefit the developer sought is estimated to be worth $3.5 million to $4 million. Whether this benefit is given at no cost to existing government, as The Wichita Eagle article implies, is open to debate. If the new development does not use any local government services, then perhaps there is no cost in giving the benefit. But if that’s true, we might ask this question: if the development does not consume any government services, why should it have to pay taxes at all?
There is evidence that TIF districts are great for the developers — after all, who wants to pay taxes — but not so good for the rest of the city and county. The article “Tax Increment Financing: A Tool for Local Economic Development” by economists Richard F. Dye and David F. Merriman states, in its conclusion:
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 — not a surprising finding. What about the rest of the city? Continuing from the same study:
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.
So TIF districts may actually reduce the rate of economic growth in the rest of the city.
There’s also evidence that TIF districts are simply a transfer of wealth from the taxpayers at large to a privileged few. In the paper titled “Do Tax Increment Finance Districts in Iowa Spur Regional Economic and Demographic Growth?” by Iowa State University economists David Swenson and Liesl Eathington, we can read this:
There is indirect statistical evidence that this profligate practice [establishing TIF districts] is resulting in a direct transfer of resources from existing tax payers to new firms without yielding region-wide economic and social gains to justify the public’s investment.
This analysis suggests that the enabling legislation for tax based incentives deserves revisiting. … there is virtually no evidence of broad economic or social benefits in light of the costs.
In the present case in Wichita, the developer says that without the benefit the TIF provides, the project is not economically viable. This is the standard rationale given for the requirement of the TIF district. Without the TIF, the development would not take place.
It may be true that this project in College Hill is not economically viable. If so, we have to wonder about the wisdom of investing in this project. More importantly, we should ask why our taxes are so high that they discourage investment and economic activity.
It may also be that the developer simply wishes to gain an advantage over the competition by lobbying for a favor from government. As government becomes more intrusive, this type of rent-seeking behavior is replacing productive economic activity.
There is one truth, however, if which I am certain: when businesses and individuals pay less tax, they have the opportunity to invest more. TIFs and tax abatements are tacit recognition that the cost of government is onerous and serves to decrease private economic activity and investment.
Here’s a better idea: reduce taxes for everyone, instead of only for companies and individuals that are successful in extracting favors from our local governments.