In this episode of WichitaLiberty.TV: We’ll examine the city council’s action regarding a downtown Wichita development project and how it is harmful to Wichita taxpayers and the economy. View below, or click here to view at YouTube. Episode 77, broadcast March 8, 2015.
A problem with wasteful spending in downtown Wichita is gradually curing itself, creating another problem in its place.
So wasteful spending on street lights during the day is being replaced by unlit streets at night.
What message does wasteful spending on street lights during the day send?
Perhaps more importantly, what impression does nonfunctioning lights at night create — three of four at this bench? And at one of our major downtown intersections? Across the street from our nice boutique hotel?
Is this the “walkable” downtown we’re trying to create?
I suppose that Wichita city leaders want to be seen taking care of our larger problems, and of those, we have a few. But this long-running problem with lights at this downtown street side bench needs to be taken care of soon. Visitors to our town may not be aware of the lofty and sweeping rhetoric of our mayor, bureaucrats, and civic leaders.
But they do notice the downtown street lights.
An incentives agreement the Wichita city council passed on first reading is missing several items that city policy requires. How the council and city staff handle the second reading of this ordinance will let us know for whose interests city hall works: citizens, or cronies.
My presentation centered on the lack of an agreement by the developer to forgo appeals of the tax valuation of the property. The applicant had done this in the past, and it caused a shortfall of TIF revenue that the city had to makeup. The city manager had said that taxpayers would be protected in future deals, but the city did not include this protection in the Mosely agreement.
The omission of this taxpayer protection was not all that was missing. The Downtown Development Incentives Policy, revised by the council on June 10, 2014, calls for several items to be supplied when seeking incentives, including tax increment financing, which was the incentive requested for the Mosely project. As I show below, many significant items related to taxpayer protection were missing.
The council approved the project on first reading, noting that the development agreement would be finalized in time for second reading.
This is insufficient. The second reading of an ordinance is usually handled as part of the consent agenda. This is a grouping of items that are voted on as a group, in bulk. There is no discussion unless a council member specifically requests. The practice of the city is that the text of the ordinances on second reading is not made available in the agenda packet, even though changes may have been made between first reading and second reading. That will certainly be the case with this ordinance, as many things are missing from the development agreement.
It’s not clear why there is a first reading and a second reading of an ordinance. It may be so that details may be corrected. Or, perhaps council members would like to have a chance to reconsider their first vote. City code seems to give no guidance as to how much change to an ordinance is allowable between first and second reading.
The problem we face in Wichita is that the approval of a development plan in a TIF district has a mandated public hearing. It is not optional. But the motion passed by the council this week closed the public hearing. Yet, the city will need to make substantial changes to the ordinance and development agreement if it intends to follow the downtown incentives policy that it created. But the public will have no chance to comment on the new material. If past city practice is followed, the new material will not be made available to the public, and perhaps not to council members.
This is a conflict that I do not believe can be resolved unless the city reopens the public hearing for consideration of the revised ordinance and developer agreement on first reading. Anything else disrespects procedures that are designed to benefit and protect the public.
Except. As with many city council policies, there are loopholes. As outlined below, the council can simply vote to waive the requirements of the downtown incentives policy. That gives the council an easy out. But that makes another mockery of the city’s policies, if the council waives them whenever they are inconvenient.
When I presented the defect in the development agreement to the council I asked: Is this lack of taxpayer protection an oversight, or is it by design? There was no answer.
I did not ask this question, but didn’t any city council member notice the omission of significant items needed to comply with its own policies? What about the city manager? Economic development director? City attorney?
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.) This is one more incident illustrating the need for campaign finance reform in Wichita.
Section D of the incentives policy states “parties requesting Downtown Development Incentives must submit the information listed below.” Significant missing items included the following:
CEDBR Fiscal Impact Model
The idea behind the city’s use of economic development incentives is that the city receives more than it spends or forgoes in future tax revenue. An analysis performed by the Center for Economic Development and Business Research (CEDBR) at Wichita State University is used to make this decision. This appears to have not been done for this project.
Guarantee for a proportional share of public revenue shortfall
This was not present in the developer agreement.
Economic analysis confirms that the project is infeasible “but for” public investment
This was not present in the developer agreement.
Minimum private to public capital investment ratio of 2 to 1
Information necessary to make this judgment was not included in the agenda presentation.
The incentives policy states: “Pro Forma — The project pro forma will be evaluated on the following criteria:
a. Rate of private investment return
b. Rents/prices consistent with performance of comparables
c. Projected rate of absorption consistent with performance of comparables
d. Long-term project solvency”
It appears that this analysis was not performed.
“Gap” Financing Requirement
The downtown incentives policy states: “Approval of Downtown Development Incentives will require a financial analysis demonstrating that the project would not otherwise be possible without the use of the requested development incentive (“gap” analysis). Parties requesting Downtown Development Incentives will be required to provide the City pro forma cash flow analyses and sources and uses of funds in sufficient detail to demonstrate that reasonably available conventional debt and equity financing sources are not available to fund the entire cost of the project and still provide the developer a reasonable market rate of return on investment.”
There is no evidence that this analysis was performed and made available to the council.
The incentives policy contains a loophole. If the council believes it is “inappropriate to evaluate a particular request for Downtown Development Incentives” using the policy, it may vote to waive the requirements.
Tax increment financing disrupts the usual flow of tax dollars, routing funds away from cash-strapped cities, counties, and schools back to the TIF-financed development. TIF creates distortions in the way cities develop, and researchers find that the use of TIF means lower economic growth.
How TIF works
A TIF district is a geographically-defined area.
In Kansas, TIF takes two or more steps. The first step is that cities or counties establish the boundaries of the TIF district. After the TIF district is defined, cities then must approve one or more project plans that authorize the spending of TIF funds in specific ways. In Kansas, overlapping counties and school districts have an opportunity to veto the formation of the TIF district, but this rarely happens. Once the district is formed, cities and counties have no ability to object to TIF project plans.
Before the formation of the TIF district, the property pays taxes to the city, county, school district, and state as can be seen in figure 1. Because property considered for TIF is purportedly blighted, the amount of tax paid is usually small. Whatever it is, that level is called the “base.”
After approval of one or more TIF project plans the city borrows money and gives it to the project or development. The city now has additional debt in the form of TIF bonds that require annual payments. Figure 2 illustrates. (There is now another form of TIF known as “pay-as-you-go” that works differently, but produces much the same economic effect.)
Figure 3 shows the flow of tax revenue after the formation of the TIF district and after the completion of a project. Because buildings were built or renovated, the property is worth more, and the property tax is now higher. The development now has two streams of property tax payments that are handled in different ways. The original tax — the “base” — is handled just like before, distributed to city, state, school district, and the state, according to their mill levy rates. The difference between the new tax and the base tax — the “increment” — is handled differently. It goes to only two destinations (mostly): The State of Kansas, and repayment of the TIF bonds.
Figure 4 highlights the difference in the flow of tax revenues. The top portion of the illustration shows development outside of TIF. We see the flows of tax payments to city, county, school district, and the state. In the bottom portion, which shows development under TIF, the tax flows to city, county, and school district are missing. No longer does a property contribute to the support of these three units of government, although the property undoubtedly requires the services of them. This is especially true for a property in Old Town, which consumes large amounts of policing.
(Cities, counties, and school districts still receive the base tax payments, but these are usually small, much smaller than the incremental taxes. In non-TIF development, these agencies still receive the base taxes too, plus whatever taxes result from improvement of the property — the “increment,” so to speak. Or simply, all taxes.)
The Kansas law governing TIF, or redevelopment districts as they are also called, starts at K.S.A. 12-1770.
TIF and public policy
Originally most states included a “but for” test that TIF districts must meet. That is, the proposed development could not happen but for the benefits of TIF. Many states have dropped this requirement. At any rate, developers can always present proposals that show financial necessity for subsidy, and gullible government officials will believe.
Similarly, TIF was originally promoted as a way to cure blight. But cities are so creative and expansive in their interpretation of blight that this requirement, if it still exists, has little meaning.
The rerouting of property taxes under TIF goes against the grain of the way taxes are usually rationalized. We use taxation as a way to pay for services that everyone benefits from, and from which we can’t exclude people. An example would be police protection. Everyone benefits from being safe, and we can’t exclude people from benefiting from police protection.
So when we pay property tax — or any tax, for that matter — people may be comforted knowing that it goes towards police and fire protection, street lights, schools, and the like. (Of course, some is wasted, and government is not the only way these services, especially education, could be provided.)
But TIF is contrary to this justification of taxes. TIF allows property taxes to be used for one person’s (or group of persons) exclusive benefit. This violates the principle of broad-based taxation to pay for an array of services for everyone. Remember: What was the purpose of the TIF bonds? To pay for things that benefited the development. Now, the development’s property taxes are being used to repay those bonds instead of funding government.
One more thing: Defenders of TIF will say that the developers will pay all their property taxes. This is true, but only on a superficial level. We now see that the lion’s share of the property taxes paid by TIF developers are routed back to them for their own benefit.
It’s only infrastructure
In their justification of TIF in general, or specific projects, proponents may say that TIF dollars are spent only on allowable purposes. Usually a prominent portion of TIF dollars are spent on infrastructure. This allows TIF proponents to say the money isn’t really being spent for the benefit of a specific project. It’s spent on infrastructure, they say, which they contend is something that benefits everyone, not one project specifically. Therefore, everyone ought to pay.
This attitude is represented by a comment left at Voice for Liberty, which contended: “The thing is that real estate developers do not invest in public streets, sidewalks and lamp posts, because there would be no incentive to do so. Why spend millions of dollars redoing or constructing public streets when you can not get a return on investment for that”
This perception is common: that when we see developers building something, the City of Wichita builds the supporting infrastructure at no cost to the developers. But it isn’t quite so. About a decade ago a project was being developed on the east side of Wichita, the Waterfront. This project was built on vacant land. Here’s what I found when I searched for City of Wichita resolutions concerning this project:
Note specifically one item: $1,672,000 for the construction of Waterfront Parkway. To anyone driving or walking in this area, they would think this is just another city street — although a very nicely designed and landscaped street. But the city did not pay for this street. Private developers paid for this infrastructure. Other resolutions resulted in the same developers paying for street lights, traffic signals, sewers, water pipes, and turning lanes on major city streets. All this is infrastructure that we’re told real estate developers will not pay for. But in order to build the Waterfront development, private developers did, with a total cost of these projects being $3,334,500. (It’s likely I did not find all the resolutions and costs pertaining to this project, and more development has happened since this research.)
In a TIF district, these things are called “infrastructure” and will be paid for by the development’s own property taxes — taxes that must be paid in any case. Outside of TIF districts, developers pay for these things themselves.
If not for TIF, nothing will happen here
Generally, TIF is justified using the “but-for” argument. That is, nothing will happen within a district unless the subsidy of TIF is used. Paul F. Byrne explains:
“The but-for provision refers to the statutory requirement that an incentive cannot be awarded unless the supported economic activity would not occur but for the incentive being offered. This provision has economic importance because if a firm would locate in a particular jurisdiction with or without receiving the economic incentive, then the economic impact of offering the incentive is non-existent. … The but-for provision represents the legislature’s attempt at preventing a local jurisdiction from awarding more than the minimum incentive necessary to induce a firm to locate within the jurisdiction. However, while a firm receiving the incentive is well aware of the minimum incentive necessary, the municipality is not.”
It’s often thought that when a but-for justification is required in order to receive an economic development incentive, financial figures can be produced that show such need. Now, recent research shows that the but-for justification is problematic. In Does Chicago’s Tax Increment Financing (TIF) Programme Pass the ‘But-for’ Test? Job Creation and Economic Development Impacts Using Time-series Data, author T. William Lester looked at block-level data regarding employment growth and private real estate development. The abstract of the paper describes:
“This paper conducts a comprehensive assessment of the effectiveness of Chicago’s TIF program in creating economic opportunities and catalyzing real estate investments at the neighborhood scale. This paper uses a unique panel dataset at the block group level to analyze the impact of TIF designation and investments on employment change, business creation, and building permit activity. After controlling for potential selection bias in TIF assignment, this paper shows that TIF ultimately fails the ‘but-for’ test and shows no evidence of increasing tangible economic development benefits for local residents.” (emphasis added)
In the paper, the author clarifies:
“To clarify these findings, this analysis does not indicate that no building activity or job crea-tion occurred in TIFed block groups, or resulted from TIF projects. Rather, the level of these activities was no faster than similar areas of the city which did not receive TIF assistance. It is in this aspect of the research design that we are able to conclude that the development seen in and around Chicago’s TIF districts would have likely occurred without the TIF subsidy. In other words, on the whole, Chicago’s TIF program fails the ‘but-for’ test.
Later on, for emphasis:
“While the findings of this paper are clear and decisive, it is important to comment here on their exact extent and external validity, and to discuss the limitations of this analysis. First, the findings do not indicate that overall employment growth in the City of Chicago was negative or flat during this period. Nor does this research design enable us to claim that any given TIF-funded project did not end up creating jobs. Rather, we conclude that on-average, across the whole city, TIF was unsuccessful in jumpstarting economic development activity — relative to what would have likely occurred otherwise.” (emphasis in original)
The author notes that these conclusions are specific to Chicago’s use of TIF, but should “should serve as a cautionary tale.”
The paper reinforces the problem of using tax revenue for private purposes, rather than for public benefit: “Essentially, Chicago’s extensive use of TIF can be interpreted as the siphoning off of public revenue for largely private-sector purposes. Although, TIF proponents argue that the public receives enhanced economic opportunity in the bargain, the findings of this paper show that the bargain is in fact no bargain at all.”
TIF is social engineering
TIF represents social engineering. By using it, city government has decided that it knows best where development should be directed. In particular, the Wichita city council has decided that Old Town and downtown development is on a superior moral plane to other development. Therefore, we all have to pay higher taxes to support this development. What is the basis for saying Old Town developers don’t have to pay for their infrastructure, but developers in other parts of the city must pay?
TIF doesn’t work
Does TIF work? It depends on what the meaning of “work” is.
If by working, do we mean does TIF induce development? If so, then TIF usually works. When the city authorizes a TIF project plan, something usually gets built or renovated. But this definition of “works” must be tempered by a few considerations.
Does TIF pay for itself?
First, is the project self-sustaining? That is, is the incremental property tax revenue sufficient to repay the TIF bonds? This has not been the case with all TIF projects in Wichita. The city has had to bail out two TIFs, one with a no-interest and low-interest loan that cost city taxpayers an estimated $1.2 million.
The verge of corruption
Second, does the use of TIF promote a civil society, or does it lead to cronyism? Randal O’Toole has written:
“TIF puts city officials on the verge of corruption, favoring some developers and property owners over others. TIF creates what economists call a moral hazard for developers. If you are a developer and your competitors are getting subsidies, you may simply fold your hands and wait until someone offers you a subsidy before you make any investments in new development. In many cities, TIF is a major source of government corruption, as city leaders hand tax dollars over to developers who then make campaign contributions to re-elect those leaders.”
We see this in Wichita, where the regular recipients of TIF benefits are also regular contributors to the political campaigns of those who are in a position to give them benefits. The corruption is not illegal, but it is real and harmful, and calls out for reform. See In Wichita, the need for campaign finance reform.
The effect of TIF on everyone
Third, what about the effect of TIF on everyone, that is, the entire city or region? Economists have studied this matter, and have concluded that in most cases, the effect is negative.
An example are economists Richard F. Dye and David F. Merriman, who have studied tax increment financing extensively. Their article Tax Increment Financing: A Tool for Local Economic Development 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 TIF districts are good for the favored development that receives the subsidy — not a surprising finding. 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)
In a different paper (The Effects of Tax Increment Financing on Economic Development), the same economists wrote “We find clear and consistent evidence that municipalities that adopt TIF grow more slowly after adoption than those that do not. … 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.” (emphasis added)
The Wichita city council is concerned about creating jobs, and is easily swayed by the promises of developers that their establishments will create jobs. Paul F. Byrne of Washburn University has examined the effect of TIF on jobs. His recent report is Does Tax Increment Financing Deliver on Its Promise of Jobs? The Impact of Tax Increment Financing on Municipal Employment Growth, and in its abstract we find this conclusion regarding the impact of TIF on jobs:
“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)
These studies and others show that as a strategy for increasing the overall wellbeing of a city, TIF fails to deliver prosperity, and in fact, causes harm.
In this episode of WichitaLiberty.TV: While chair of the Wichita Metro Chamber of Commerce, a Wichita business leader strikes a deal that’s costly for taxpayers. A Kansas University faculty member is under attack from groups that don’t like his politics. Then, how can classical liberalism help us all get along with each other? View below, or click here to view at YouTube. Episode 68, broadcast December 14, 2014.
In this episode of WichitaLiberty.TV: A look at some elements of Wichita’s legislative agenda for state government, in particular special tax treatment for special artists, problems with the city’s numbers regarding airfares, and why we should abandon the pursuit of passenger rail. Then, why are people not more involved in political affairs? View below, or click here to view at YouTube. Episode 67, broadcast December 7, 2014.
Wichita government spending on economic development leads to imagined problems that require government intervention and more taxpayer contribution to resolve. The cycle of organic rebirth of cities is then replaced with bureaucratic management.
As the City of Wichita prepares its legislative agenda for 2015, an issue arises for the first year. It seems that the success of government spending on development has created rising property values, which creates higher tax bills, and that is a burden for some. Here’s the issue the city has identified: “Cultural arts enterprises in certain areas are threatened by rising property values and the resulting tax burden.”
Here’s the solution the city proposes: “The Wichita City Council supports state legislation that would allow local governments to use innovative measures to protect cultural arts enterprises from circumstantial increases in property taxes. The intent is to nurture and preserve arts activity throughout the City of Wichita and the State of Kansas.”
What are the “innovative measures” the city wants to use? Nothing special; just allowing a special group of people to shirk paying the same taxes that everyone else has to pay. The city wants to be able to use tax abatements for up to ten years. The percentage of taxes that could be forgiven could be as high as 80 percent.
So there’s really nothing innovative to see here. The city merely wants to broaden the application of tax forgiveness. Which means the tax base shrinks, and the people who still find themselves unlucky enough to still be part of the tax base face increasing demands for their tax payments.
The city manager said that artists from Commerce Street came to the city looking for a solution to their problem. Which is about the same problem that everyone else has: high taxes.
Here’s the nub of the problem, as explained by the city manager: “The more successful that we are with the redevelopment, the higher the value of the properties, and therefore harder for them who are on thin margins to begin with to stay in the districts, so they lose their charm of being the artistic or art districts.”
The proposed solution, which will require a change to state law, is that a government bureaucrat will decide the boundaries of one or more cultural arts districts. The bureaucrat will also decide which types of business firms qualify for discounts on their taxes. Besides Commerce Street, the manager identified Delano, Old Town, and the Douglas Design District as possible districts where artists might receive 80 percent discounts on their property taxes.
After this, other taxpayers have to make up the lost tax revenue from the artists. That is, unless the city decides to reduce spending by the amount of the tax discounts. I’ve proposed that to the city in other similar circumstances, and the idea was rejected. I believe council members thought I was delusional.
There are many people and business firms that operate on the same “thin margins” that the city manager wants to help artists escape. We see them come to city hall seeking special treatment. As a result, the city plans and manages an increasing share of the economy, and economic freedom, entrepreneurship, and the potential for a truly dynamic economy decline.
Who will stake out the next frontier?
There are many problems with the idea the city is proposing.
One is that the city is asking poor people to pay their full share of property taxes while granting artists a discount. This is a serious problem of equity, which is that people in similar circumstances should be treated the same. Just because someone chooses art as a business or vocation doesn’t mean they should be treated specially with respect to the taxes they pay.
Another problem is that the process of establishing arts districts will interrupt the dynamism of the way cities develop. Arts districts develop because artists want (or need) places with cheap rent. Unless they can persuade city hall to grant property tax discounts, this generally means artists rent space in “bad” parts of town, that is, parts of town that are run down, blighted, and may have high crime rates. Thus, cheap rent.
If things go well, that is, the artists are successful and a community develops, things get fixed up. Rents rise. Taxes rise. The artists can’t afford the higher rent and taxes and have to move on. Which means the cycle repeats. The artists on the cutting edge find other places to move to, and the cycle repeats. Other parts of the city are reborn — organically — through the benefits of markets, not government bureaucracy. This is good.
Except: The City of Wichita is proposing to end the cycle by granting discounts on taxes to artists so they may remain where they are.
We replace dynamism with stagnation by bureaucracy. The city says this is innovative.
Campaign activity by the Wichita Downtown Development Corporation appears to be contrary to several opinions issued by Kansas Attorneys General regarding the use of public funds in elections.
While the Wichita Downtown Development Corporation presents itself as a non-profit organization that is independent of the City of Wichita, it receives 95 percent of its revenue from taxes, according to its most recent IRS Form 990. While Kansas has no statutes or court cases prohibiting the use of public funds for electioneering, there are at least two Kansas Attorney General opinions on this topic.
One, opinion 93-125, states in its synopsis: “The public purpose doctrine does not encompass the use of public funds to promote or advocate a governing body’s position on a matter which is before the electorate. However, public funds may be expended to educate and inform regarding issues to be voted upon by the electorate.”
The “governing body” in this instance is the Wichita City Council.
While some governing bodies spend taxpayer funds to present information about ballot measures, this is not the case with the Wichita Downtown Development Corporation. It explicitly campaigns in favor of the issue. It displays pro-sales tax campaign signs at its office. It publicly endorsed passage of the sales tax.
A more recent Kansas Attorney General opinion, 2001-13, holds this language: “While the Kansas appellate courts have not directly addressed the issue of whether public funds can be used to promote a position during an election, there are a number of cases from other jurisdictions that conclude that a public entity cannot do so.”
The opinion cites a court case: “Underlying this uniform judicial reluctance to sanction the use of public funds for election campaigns rests an implicit recognition that such expenditures raise potentially serious constitutional questions. A fundamental precept of this nation’s democratic electoral process is that the government may not ‘take sides’ in election contests or bestow an unfair advantage on one of several competing factions.”
The opinion reaffirms 93-125, stating: “In Attorney General Opinion No. 93-125, Attorney General Robert T. Stephan concluded that public funds may not be used to promote or advocate a city governing body’s position on a matter that is before the electorate.”
Given these Kansas Attorney General opinions, and considering good public policy, Wichita voters need to ask: Should an organization that is funded 95 percent by taxes be campaigning for a ballot issue?
This is the Wichita Downtown Development Corporation. It routinely advocates for special deals whereby downtown developers don’t have to pay property taxes or sales taxes. Or if they do pay property taxes, they might be routed back to them for their exclusive benefit. But as you can see, WDDC campaigns for low-income households to pay more sales tax on groceries.
Say, did you know that WDDC is funded almost entirely with tax money? And that it wants to spend that money in secret?
In this episode of WichitaLiberty.TV: We’ll talk about the proposed Wichita sales tax, including who pays it, and who gets special exemptions from paying it. Then, can we believe the promises the city makes about accountability and transparency? Finally, has the chosen solution for a future water supply proven itself as viable, and why are we asking low-income households to pay more sales tax on groceries for drought protection? View below, or click here to view at YouTube. Episode 63, broadcast October 26, 2014.
Testimony of John Todd to the Wichita City Council, October 7, 2014.
I want to complement the Union Station LLC group for tackling an important redevelopment project in downtown Wichita.
I am troubled however, by the developer’s request for $17.3 million in Tax Increment Finance (TIF) funding for his project because it diverts increases in future property tax revenues away from the public treasury and back to the developer for 20 years. Under current taxing levies this means that roughly one-third or $5 million plus of future Union Station property tax revenues would be diverted from the City of Wichita needed for public safety items like police and fire protection, and the building of public infrastructure. Plus, roughly one-third or $5 million plus would be diverted from the Sedgwick County treasury needed to provide for our Court System, the maintenance of property ownership records, the Sheriff’s office and detention center. The last one-third or $5 million plus would be diverted from Wichita Public Schools needed for the education of our children.
The diversion of future property tax revenues away from local governmental treasuries should concern every taxpaying citizen when one considers the many needs for these funds. On the city level, $5 million over 20 years could go a long way towards funding needed street maintenance and repairs, or providing the revenue needed for a viable public bus system, and finding a long-term solution to our cities’ future water needs. Sedgwick County could use $5 million to re-open the Judge Riddel Boys Ranch that helps turn boy’s lives around and makes our community a safer place to live and play by reducing recidivism and crime. And, just think of how many teachers could be hired with $5 million to prepare our young people for productive lives and jobs.
I am of the opinion that Mr. Gary Oborny has the track record to prove that he is one of the most creative and exceptional real estate developers in the City of Wichita and that he possesses the professional talents needed to make the Union Station project work without TIF public funding.
I believe at some point downtown redevelopment needs to be market driven, stand on its own, and pay taxes into the city treasury like other city development projects do.
Today, you have the opportunity to exercise your leadership skills in achieving this transformation. I urge you to seize it.
Wichita city hall promises policies that are clear, predictable and transparent, except when they’re not.
On July 22, 2104, a presentation to the Wichita City Council sought to assure the council and public that a proposed jobs fund created with money collected by the proposed sales tax would have policies that govern the spending of funds: “GWEDC – Finds businesses to expand, recruit, follows established policies for retention/recruitment.”
But there’s a problem. It’s difficult for governments to establish policies that will satisfy everyone. How do we know today what we’ll need five or ten years down the road? When governments change policies to fit particular circumstances, taxpayers are rightfully concerned that the alterations are to suit the needs of special people — the cronies that feed from the city hall trough of taxpayer money. When you couple in what public choice theory tells us, which is that the cronies who want money from government have a much stronger motive to succeed than the bureaucrats are motivated to protect citizens and taxpayers, we can have trouble.
This has happened before in Wichita. Last year when a project didn’t meet the (supposedly) required benefit-cost ratio, the city simply said that it didn’t apply in that case. See Wichita’s policymaking on display.
Now, Wichita seeks to modify its policies again in response to the wants and desires of one person.
Here’s the background you need to know. When the city passed a downtown development incentives policy in 2011, here’s what the city said was its goal: “The business plan recommends the development of a prudent public investment policy that is clear, predictable and transparent, maximizes public investment and enhances market-driven development.” (emphasis added)
The meeting minutes contained further elucidation: “Scott Kneibel Planning Department stated the purpose of the policy is to put in place something that is clear and predictable in terms of how the public would invest in downtown projects through partnership with the private sector. Stated that sort of statement by this governing body has not been made to date. Stated that is the purpose of this policy so that developers will know what types of investments the City of Wichita is interested in making and how the City of Wichita will make those decisions.” (emphasis added)
But as in the past, we find city proposing the change the standards in the middle of the game. Here’s an excerpt from the agenda packet for Tuesday’s meeting, in which a large incentive package for the redevelopment of Union Station may be considered: “In the opinion of the evaluation team, the established criteria do not adequately address projects such as Union Station where the requested incentives do not involve City debt.”
For this project we see that city policy is being modified on the fly to meet the circumstances of a particular project. This is not necessarily bad. Entrepreneurship demands flexibility. But the city promises policies that are clear, predictable and transparent, and city officials say Wichita has a transparent, open government.
Can you imagine conscientious developers who want to invest in downtown Wichita, but after studying the city’s policies, realize their projects don’t conform to the city’s published standards? How many moved on to other cities, not realizing that our standards can be altered and waived?
As Wichita voters consider the value to give to promises from city hall, they should consider these episodes when the city promises there will be “established policies” for the spending of economic development funds generated by the proposed sales tax.
Documents the Wichita City Council will use to evaluate a development proposal contain material errors. Despite the city being aware of the errors for more than one month, they have not been corrected.
On August 19, 2014 the Wichita City Council considered an agenda item titled “Resolution Considering the Establishment of the Union Station Redevelopment District, Tax Increment Financing.” The purpose of the item was to set October 7, 2014 as the date for the public hearing on the formation of a TIF district. The council passed this resolution.
On August 27 Bob Weeks inquired this of Wichita city officials based on information contained in city documents that were prepared for the August 19 meeting:
“On the Union station TIF proposal, there is mentioned ‘$3,766,156 in monetized historic tax credits.’ Do you know whether these are federal or state tax credits, and the face value of the credits? I presume that ‘monetized’ means the value the developers expect to receive when selling the credits at a discount.”
That same day he received this response from Allen Bell, the city’s Director of Urban Development.
“The Developer has not yet provided the City with details on the tax credits. However, staff analyzed the project to ascertain a ballpark estimate of how much it could generate in both state and federal tax credits and came up with a similar amount. We assume that $3,766,156 is the amount of net proceeds to be injected into the project from the sale of tax credits and that it is discounted from the face value of the credits.”
On follow up, Weeks asked this:
“I was also wondering which incentive program allows for the sales tax exemptions included in the CEDBR analysis.”
The response from Bell was:
“The only incentive program available to Union Station that would provide a sales tax exemption is IRBs. The Developer did not request IRBs or a sales tax exemption. I would guess that CEDBR factored it into the cost-benefit analysis to be extra conservative.”
CEDBR is the Center for Economic Development and Business Research at Wichita State University.
In addition to Bell, other city officials participating in these emails were Van Williams, Public Information Officer; Mark Elder, Development Analyst; and Scott Knebel, Downtown Revitalization Manager.
On October 2, when the city released the agenda packet for the October 7 meeting, the tax credits and sales tax information was not changed.
By the city’s admission, the value of tax credits for this project is a guess, and we don’t know if the project is actually eligible for these tax credits. The sales tax exemption included in the CEDBR is an incentive this project is not eligible for and will not receive. Despite several city officials being aware of these errors, the material the city council will consider on October 7 has not been corrected.
Supporters of a proposed sales tax in Wichita promise there will be no conflicts of interest when making spending decisions. That would be a welcome departure from present city practice.
In November Wichita voters will decide on a new one cent per dollar sales tax, part to be used for economic development, specifically job creation. “Yes Wichita” is a group that supports the sales tax. Language on its website reads: “Conflict-of-interest policies will prohibit anyone from participating in decisions in which there is any self-interest.” The page is addressing the economic development portion of the proposed sales tax. It’s part of an effort to persuade Wichita voters that millions in incentives will be granted based on merit instead of cronyism or the self-interest of politicians, bureaucrats, and committee members.
The problem is that while the city currently has in place laws regarding conflicts of interest, the city does not seem willing to observe them. If the proposed sales tax passes, what assurances do we have that the city will change its ways?
Following, from October 2013, is one illustration of Wichita city hall’s attitude towards conflicts of interest and more broadly, government ethics.
Wichita contracts, their meaning (or not)
Is the City of Wichita concerned that its contracts contain language that seems to be violated even before the contract is signed?
This week the Wichita City Council approved a development agreement for the apartments to be built on the west bank of the Arkansas River. The development agreement the council contemplated included this language in Section 11.06, titled “Conflicts of Interest.”
No member of the City’s governing body or of any branch of the City’s government that has any power of review or approval of any of the Developer’s undertakings shall participate in any decisions relating thereto which affect such person’s personal interest or the interests of any corporation or partnership in which such person is directly or indirectly interested.
At Tuesday’s meeting I read this section of the contract to the council. I believe it is relevant for these reasons:
1. Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer is a member of a governing body that has power of approval over this project.
2. Bill Warren is one of the parties that owns this project.
3. Bill Warren also owns movie theaters.
4. Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer owns a company that manufactures barbeque sauce.
5. Brewer’s sauce is sold at Warren’s theaters.
The question is this: Does the mayor’s business relationship with Warren fall under the prohibitions described in the language of section 11.06? Evidently not. After I read section 11.06 I asked the mayor if he sold his sauce at Warren’s theaters. He answered yes. But no one — not any of the six city council members, not the city manager, not the city attorney, not any bureaucrat — thought my question was worthy of discussion.
(While the agreement doesn’t mention campaign contributions, I might remind the people of Wichita that during 2012, parties to this agreement and their surrogates provided all the campaign finance contributions that council members Lavonta Williams and James Clendenin received. See Campaign contributions show need for reform in Wichita. That’s a lot of personal interest in the careers of politicians.)
I recommend that if we are not willing to live up to this section of the contract that we strike it. Why have language in contracts that we ignore? Parties to the contract rationalize that if the city isn’t concerned about enforcing this section, why should they have to adhere to other sections?
While we’re at it, we might also consider striking Section 2.04.050 of the city code, titled “Code of ethics for council members.” This says, in part, “[Council members] shall refrain from making decisions involving business associates, customers, clients, friends and competitors.”
That language seems pretty clear to me. But we have a city attorney that says that this is simply advisory. If the city attorney’s interpretation of this law is controlling, I suggest we strike this section from the city code. Someone who reads this — perhaps a business owner considering Wichita for expansion — might conclude that our city has a code of ethics that is actually observed by the mayor and council members and enforced by its attorneys.
Following is testimony provided to the Wichita City Council on July 1, 2014. Background on this issue may be found at In Wichita, a public hearing with missing information and Wichita city council schools citizens on civic involvement.
Thank you for providing the gap analysis that I requested.
If the gap analysis is credible, if it really is true that projects like this are not financially feasible without taxpayer assistance, what does that tell us about Wichita? Shouldn’t we work on fixing these problems for everyone, rather than parceling out business welfare on a piecemeal basis?
The agenda packet material for this item says there is a need for incentives “based on the current market.” But not long ago this council was told that downtown Wichita is booming. So why won’t the market support a project like this without a handout from city taxpayers? And if downtown is truly booming but we’re still giving out incentives, will we ever be able to wean ourselves off?
Based on my reading of the gap analysis document, I see another problem with the facade improvement program. It shifts costs from landlords to commercial tenants. Instead of paying for the facade improvement costs as part of a mortgage or other financing, these costs become additional property taxes that commercial tenants pay in addition to rent.
This is really a problem, as Kansas and Wichita commercial property taxes are high. Each year The Lincoln Institute of Land Policy and Minnesota Center for Fiscal Excellence survey property taxes. Considering the largest city in each of the states, Wichita property taxes are ninth highest in the nation for commercial property.
Wichita taxes are not just a little higher, but a lot higher. For example, for a commercial property valued at $100,000, Wichita property taxes are 38.5 percent higher than the national average.
Some of the reason why commercial property taxes are so high is due to the difference in assessment rates for various property classes. That’s not set by the City of Wichita. But the overall level of spending, and therefore the level of taxation, is set by this council. Further, the cost of incentives like this raise the cost of government for everyone else. One thing the city could do is to reduce spending somewhere else to offset the cost of this incentive. This would mean that other taxpayers do not have to bear the cost of this incentive.
If we wonder why the Wichita economy is not growing, commercial property tax rates and this council’s policy of targeted reductions are a large part of the problem.
Development plan for downtown Wichita as prepared by RTKL Associates, Inc. January, 1989. View below, or click here to open in new window.
The City of Wichita says it wants policies to be predictable and reliable, but finds it difficult to live up to that goal.
From 2009, an example of how the City of Wichita makes policy on the fly to suit the current situation. The policy change benefited a building developed by “The Minnesota Guys,” who, since the time of this article, fell into disfavor with pretty much everyone in Wichita, including the city council.
Regarding public policy, this episode illustrated the city broadening the application of special assessment financing. Traditionally special assessment financing has been limited to instances such as the city building streets and sewers in new areas of town, allowing commercial and residential property owners to repay the costs over 15 years. But the item approved by the council at this meeting was for repair of existing buildings, not construction of new infrastructure. Additionally, the work financed by the special assessment taxes will be owned by the private property owners. When the city uses special assessment financing to build streets and sewers in new neighborhoods the city owns this infrastructure, even though it is paid for by nearby property owners.
To approve this financing, the city had to bend or waive two policies. That’s problematic, as the city tells citizens it wants policies and council behavior to be consistent and predictable. Although this incident is from five years ago, not much has changed since then. See Wichita: No such document for an example from last year. Following is Wichita special assessments for repairs is bad policy. Other articles on this topic are In Wichita, waiving guidelines makes for bad policy and At Wichita city council, special pleading of selfish interests.
At Tuesday’s meeting (August 18, 2009) of the Wichita City Council, a privately-owned condominium association is seeking special assessment financing to make repairs to its building. In order for the association to succeed in its request, the council will have to waive two guidelines of Wichita’s facade improvement program.
Special assessment financing means that the cost of the repairs, up to $112,620 in this case, will be added to the building’s property taxes. Actually, in this case, to each of the condominium owners’ taxes. They’ll pay it off over the course of 15 years. (A conversation with the president of the homeowners association brought out the possibility that the actual assessment may be in the neighborhood of $75,000.)
So the city is not giving this money to the building’s owners. They’ll have to pay it back. The city is, however, setting new precedent in this action.
Special assessment financing has traditionally been used to fund infrastructure such as streets and sewers, and new infrastructure at that. The city, under its facade improvement program, now allows this type of financing to be used to make repairs and renovations to existing buildings. That’s if the building is located in one of the politically-favored areas of town.
By using special assessment financing in this way, the city seeks to direct investment towards parts of town that it feels doesn’t have enough investment. This form of centralized government planning is bad public policy. The city should stop doing this, and let people freely choose where to invest.
Besides this, two guidelines in the city’s facade improvement program must be waived for this project to obtain special assessment financing.
The first is the private investment match. This is designed to ensure that the property owners have “skin in the game” and that the taxes will be paid back.
Here, the city is proposing that since the building’s owners have made a past investment in this property, there’s no need to require a concurrent investment. It hardly needs to be noted that anyone who has purchased property has made a past investment in that property.
Second, facade improvement projects are required to undergo a gap analysis to “prove” the need for public financing. According to the city’s report: “This project does not lend itself to this type of gap analysis; however, staff believes that conventional financing would be difficult to obtain for exterior repairs to a residential condominium property like this.”
So the city proposes to waive this requirement as well.
There seems to me to be a defect in the manner of ownership of this building. While the homeowners association and the condominium owners might not have anticipated that repairs would be needed so soon after the building’s opening, they must have contemplated that repairs and maintenance — to either exterior or interior common areas — would be needed at some time. How does the association plan to pay for these?
So what will happen if the city council doesn’t approve the special assessment financing? The agenda report states “Each individual condo owner would be required to fund a share of the cost.”
Isn’t that what private property owners do: fund the cost of repairs to their property?
According to the Sedgwick County Treasurer’s office, the appraised values of these condos range from $103,000 to $310,200, with an average value of $201,943. The maximum amount being added to each condo’s assessment is $4,022, although the actual amount may be closer to $3,000.
That’s along the lines of what it might cost to perform a few repairs and paint a house that’s worth what these condos are worth.
Let’s ask that these owners do just what thousands of homeowners in Wichita do every year: take responsibility for the maintenance of their own property without looking to city hall for help.
The Wichita City Council is holding a public hearing, but citizens don’t have information that would be useful if they’re interested in conducting oversight.
Wichita’s facade improvement program provides for the financing of the exterior faces of buildings in certain areas of the city. The money that is advanced to the developers, along with interest charges, are added to the property tax bills for the property, spread over 15 years. In this respect the program is similar to when the city builds streets and sewers in new areas of town and allows homeowners to pay these costs over 15 years. Except, the facade improvement program is for repair of existing buildings, not construction of new infrastructure. Additionally, the work financed by the facade improvement program is owned by the private property owner. When the city constructs streets and sewers in new neighborhoods, the city owns them.
There’s another difference. In the item to be considered today, there is a grant of $20,000. This is a gift of cash with few strings attached, except that it be spent on something the owner must spend anyway.
City documents indicate this is a project with a cost of $2,500.000.
Here’s the public policy angle. City documents state, regarding this item:
In 2009, the Facade Improvement Program was revised to require that private funding for overall project costs be at least equal to public funding and that applicants show a financial need for public assistance in order to complete the project, based on the owner’s ability to finance the project and assuming a market-based return on investment.
Later on, the same document states
The Office of Urban Development has reviewed the economic (“gap”) analysis of the project and determined a financial need for incentives based on the current market.
In other words, without the benefit of the facade improvement loan and grant, the project would not be economically feasible. Which, to me, seems curious. A $20,000 grant for a $2,500,000 project is 0.8 percent of the project. The lower interest rate for the $156,034 being financed under the program provides some small additional benefit. These values are small compared to the scope of the project. It is not possible to forecast future revenues and expenses with the precision necessary to conclude that the facade improvement program boosts this project over the bar of economic feasibility, whatever that is.
We’ll probably not know what that bar is. I asked for the “gap” analysis. It doesn’t appear that it will be available before today’s meeting. I asked for it Thursday evening, and the city’s public information officer has followed up with me to see if I received the document, but I do not have it. The public doesn’t have it. I doubt if city council members have it.
The item today is a public hearing. The law requires it to be held so that the council can receive input from the public. Whether the public is informed — that’s a different matter.
Who reads the agenda
The agenda packet for the previous week contained a mistake. It was a mistake that is easy to make and not of any serious consequence. The wrong pages appeared for an item, and the correct pages were not in the packet. When I inquired about this late Monday afternoon — not long before the Tuesday meeting — the city’s public information office thanked me for bringing this to the city’s attention. A correction was promptly published.
Which leads me to wonder: Had anyone else read the agenda with sufficient attention to notice that mistake?
Commercial retail space owned by the City of Wichita in a desirable downtown location was built to be rented. But most is vacant, and maintenance issues go unresolved.
At one time it was thought that the Wichita city-owned parking structure in the 400 block of East William Street would house retail shops along the street. But the present state of the property should cause us to be wary of government economic development efforts.
As reported by the Wichita Eagle twenty years ago on Wednesday, October 20, 1993:
The council also approved a plan to spend about $76 a square foot to construct roughly 6,000 square feet of retail space on the first floor of the parking garage. The space would lease for an estimated $8.70 a square foot.
Council member Sheldon Kamen questioned that part of the plan. ”I just can’t visualize spending $76 a square foot,” he said. “If I was a developer I wouldn’t spend $76 a square foot for retail space on William street.”
Council member Joan Cole disagreed with Kamen, calling $8.70 a “very good price” that would attract tenants. ”It is my feeling there are small operations that would find this kind of small space very attractive,” she said.
(Adjusted for inflation, these prices would be $122 and $14 today)
What has been the results of the city’s venture into commercial real estate? As can be seen in this video from September, a Wichita city government office occupied some of the space, but the office had moved to another location. Now, Wichita Festivals occupies some of the space, but much is still empty.
Inspecting the building last September, I found that this city-owned property had maintenance issues that might, in some circumstances, be considered as contributing to blight. Based on a recent walk-by, maintenance hasn’t improved in the ten months since then. Maybe that’s why there’s apparently little demand to rent this space.
It’s not as though the building has many of advantages that city planners tell us are needed for a vital downtown Wichita. It’s adjacent to the block with the Eaton Hotel and the Wichita Downtown Development Corporation, the agency charged with promoting downtown. This retail space is right across the street from the city’s bus transit center. It’s also one block away from the Intrust Bank Arena, which was promoted as a driver of commerce and activity for the surrounding area. Its Walk Score — a measure promoted by city planners — is 71, which is deemed “Very Walkable. Most errands can be accomplished on foot.”
Considering all the advantages this government-owned property has, it’s failing. It’s becoming blighted. The best thing the city could do is sell this property so that the benefits of markets and the profit-and-loss system can replace management by Wichita city hall bureaucrats.
From The Daily Beast, Richard Florida Concedes the Limits of the Creative Class:
Urbanists, journalists, and academics — not to mention big-city developers — were easily persuaded that shelling out to court “the hip and cool” would benefit everyone else, too. … Florida himself, in his role as an editor at The Atlantic, admitted last month what his critics, including myself, have said for a decade: that the benefits of appealing to the creative class accrue largely to its members — and do little to make anyone else any better off. The rewards of the “creative class” strategy, he notes, “flow disproportionately to more highly-skilled knowledge, professional and creative workers,” since the wage increases that blue-collar and lower-skilled workers see “disappear when their higher housing costs are taken into account.” His reasonable and fairly brave, if belated, takeaway: “On close inspection, talent clustering provides little in the way of trickle-down benefits.”