Several large employers in Wichita ask to avoid paying millions in taxes, which increases the cost of government for everyone else, including young companies struggling to break through.
This week the Wichita City Council will hold public hearings concerning the issuance of Industrial Revenue Bonds to Spirit AeroSystems, Inc and other companies. In the IRB program, government is not lending money, and Wichita taxpayers are not at risk if the bonds are not repaid. In fact, in the case of Spirit, the applicant company plans to purchase the bonds itself, according to city documents. Instead, the purpose of the IRB process is to allow Spirit to escape paying property taxes and, often, sales taxes.
These bonds will allow Spirit to avoid paying property taxes on taxable property purchased with bond proceeds for a period of five years. The abatement may then be extended for another five years. Usually these IRB issues also carry a sales tax exemption, but the agenda packet for this item does not mention such
City documents state that the property tax abatement will be shared among the taxing jurisdictions in these estimated amounts:
USD 259: $731,614
The listing of USD 259, the Wichita public school district, is likely a mistake by the city, as the Spirit properties lie in the Derby school district. This is evident below.
The forgiveness of taxes is justified by the city because it believes it will receive a return that is greater than the foregone taxes. This benefit-cost ratio is calculated by the Center for Economic Development and Business Research (CEDBR) at Wichita State University based on data supplied by the applicant company and the city. The rationale behind these calculations is a matter of debate. Even if valid, calculating the ratio with any degree of precision is folly, reminding us of the old saw “Economists use a decimal point to remind us they have a sense of humor.”
City of Wichita: 5.38 to 1
City General Fund: 2.60 to 1
City Debt Service Fund: NA to 1
Sedgwick County: 2.69 to 1
U.S.D. 260: 1.16 to 1
State of Kansas: 5.51 to 1
These figures reveal that the City of Wichita is forcing a decision on a neighboring jurisdiction that it would not accept for itself, unless it uses one of many exceptions or loopholes. This adverse decision is forced upon the Derby School District. It faces a benefit-cost ratio of 1.16 to 1, which is below the city’s standard of 1.30 to 1, unless an exception is cited. The Derby School District is not involved in this action and has no ability to influence the issuance of these bonds, should it desire to.
We have to wonder why the City of Wichita imposes upon the Derby school district an economic development incentive that costs the Derby schools $731,614 per year, with a substandard payoff?
Of note, the Derby school district extends into Wichita, including parts of city council districts 2 and 3. These districts are represented by Pete Meitzner and James Clendenin, respectively.
In a second agenda item, the city will consider IRBs for a building being developed by Air Capital Flight Line. The beneficiary, however, is Spirit, as city documents state: “The requested sales tax exemption and property tax abatement will be passed on as a benefit to Spirit.”
The annual benefit in tax savings is given by the city as:
USD 259: $506,502
These values are offset by a Payment-In-Lieu-Of-Taxes (PILOT) estimated at $13,251 annually.
For benefit-cost ratios, the city supplies these:
City of Wichita: 3.65 to 1
City of Wichita Gen Fund: 1.83 to 1
City of Wichita Debt Serv: NA to 1
Sedgwick County: 2.09 to 1
USD 260: 1.00 to 1
State of Kansas 2.48: to 1
Here we see the same mistake with the Wichita and Derby school districts. We also see the Derby school district giving up $506,502 in tax revenue, with no positive return.
Spirit is not the only company asking for tax relief through IRBs this week. Three other companies are making similar requests. In none of these cases is economic necessity cited as a reason for escaping taxes. None are threatening to leave Wichita if the relief is not granted.
The problem with these actions
Part of the cost of these companies’ investment, along with the accompanying risk, is spread to a class of business firms that can’t afford additional cost and risk. These are young startup firms, the entrepreneurial firms that we need to nurture in order to have real and sustainable economic growth and jobs. But we can’t identify which firms will be successful. So we need an economic development strategy that creates an environment where these young entrepreneurial firms have the greatest chance to survive. The action the Wichita city council is considering this week works against entrepreneurial firms. (See Kansas economic growth policy should embrace dynamism and How to grow the Kansas economy.)
A major reason why these tax abatements are harmful to the Wichita economy is its strangling effect on entrepreneurship and young companies. As these companies and others escape paying taxes, others have to pay. This increases the burden of the cost of government on everyone else — in particular on the companies we need to nurture.
There’s plenty of evidence that entrepreneurship, in particular young business firms, are the key to economic growth. But Wichita’s economic development policies, as evidenced by these actions, are definitely stacked against the entrepreneur. As Wichita props up its established industries, it makes it more difficult for young firms to thrive. Wichita relies on targeted investment in our future. Our elected officials and bureaucrats believe they have the ability to select which companies are worthy of public investment, and which are not. It’s a form of centralized planning by government that shapes the future direction of the Wichita economy.
These targeted economic development efforts fail for several reasons. First is the knowledge problem, in that government simply does not know which companies are worthy of public investment. This lack of knowledge, however, does not stop governments from creating policies for the awarding of incentives. This “active investor” approach to economic development is what has led to companies receiving grants or escaping hundreds of millions in taxes — taxes that others have to pay. That has a harmful effect on other business, both existing and those that wish to form. Young entrepreneurial companies are particularly vulnerable.
Professor Art Hall of the Center for Applied Economics at the Kansas University School of Business is critical of this approach to economic development. In his paper Embracing Dynamism: The Next Phase in Kansas Economic Development Policy, Hall quotes Alan Peters and Peter Fisher: “The most fundamental problem is that many public officials appear to believe that they can influence the course of their state and local economies through incentives and subsidies to a degree far beyond anything supported by even the most optimistic evidence. We need to begin by lowering expectations about their ability to micro-manage economic growth and making the case for a more sensible view of the role of government — providing foundations for growth through sound fiscal practices, quality public infrastructure, and good education systems — and then letting the economy take care of itself.”
In the same paper, Hall writes this regarding “benchmarking” — the bidding wars for large employers: “Kansas can break out of the benchmarking race by developing a strategy built on embracing dynamism. Such a strategy, far from losing opportunity, can distinguish itself by building unique capabilities that create a different mix of value that can enhance the probability of long-term economic success through enhanced opportunity. Embracing dynamism can change how Kansas plays the game.”
In making his argument, Hall cites research on the futility of chasing large employers as an economic development strategy: “Large-employer businesses have no measurable net economic effect on local economies when properly measured. To quote from the most comprehensive study: ‘The primary finding is that the location of a large firm has no measurable net economic effect on local economies when the entire dynamic of location effects is taken into account. Thus, the siting of large firms that are the target of aggressive recruitment efforts fails to create positive private sector gains and likely does not generate significant public revenue gains either.'”
(For a summary of the peer-reviewed academic research that examines the local impact of targeted tax incentives from an empirical point of view, see Research on economic development incentives. A sample finding is “General fiscal policy found to be mildly effective, while targeted incentives reduced economic performance (as measured by per capita income).”)
There is also substantial research that is it young firms — distinguished from small business in general — that are the engine of economic growth for the future. We can’t detect which of the young firms will blossom into major success — or even small-scale successes. The only way to nurture them is through economic policies that all companies can benefit from. Reducing tax rates for everyone is an example of such a policy. Abating taxes for specific companies through programs like the Wichita city council is considering this week is an example of precisely the wrong policy.
In explaining the importance of dynamism, Hall wrote: “Generally speaking, dynamism represents persistent, annual change in about one-third of Kansas jobs. Job creation may be a key goal of economic development policy but job creation is a residual economic outcome of business dynamism. The policy challenge centers on promoting dynamism by establishing a business environment that induces business birth and expansion without bias related to the size or type of business.”
We need to move away from economic development based on this active investor approach, especially the policies that prop up our established companies to the detriment of dynamism. We need to advocate for policies — at Wichita City Hall, at the Sedgwick County Commission, and at the Kansas Statehouse — that lead to sustainable economic development. We need political leaders who have the wisdom to realize this, and the courage to act appropriately. Which is to say, to not act in most circumstances.
This year American City Business Journals presented the results of a study of small business vitality in cities. Wichita ranked at number 104 out of 106 cities studied. Awarding incentives to large companies places small business at a disadvantage. Not only must small business pay for the cost of government that incentivized companies avoid, small companies must also compete with subsidized companies for inputs such as capital and labor.
Pursuing large companies
Research has found that the pursuit of large companies doesn’t produce the desired growth: “The results show that large firms fail to produce significant net benefits for their host communities, calling into question the high-stakes bidding war over jobs and investment.”
This finding is counterintuitive. People can easily see the large companies. They are likely to know someone that works there. But it is the unseen effects that must be considered too, and that is rarely done.