Downtown Wichita deal shows some of the problems with the Wichita economy

In this script from a recent episode of WichitaLiberty.TV: A look at the Wichita city council’s action regarding a downtown Wichita development project and how it is harmful to Wichita taxpayers and the economy. This is from episode 77, originally broadcast March 8, 2015. View the episode here.

This week a downtown Wichita project received many economic benefits such as free sales taxes and a bypass of Wichita’s code of conduct for city council members.

Exchange Place
Exchange Place
The issue had to do with tax increment financing, or TIF. This is a method of economic development whereby property taxes are routed back to a real estate development rather than funding the cost of government. It’s thought that TIF is necessary to make certain types of projects economically feasible. I appeared before the Wichita city council and shared my concerns about the harmful effects of this type of economic development.

I said that regarding the Exchange Place project in downtown Wichita, I’d like to remind the council of the entire subsidy package offered to the project.

There are historic preservation tax credits, which may amount to 25 percent of the project cost. These credits have the same economic impact as a cash payment, and their cost must be born by taxpayers.

There is $12.5 million in tax increment financing, which re-routes future property tax revenues back to the project for the benefit of its owners. Most everyone else pays property taxes in order to pay for government, not for things that benefit themselves exclusively, or nearly so.

There is a federal loan guarantee, which places the federal taxpayer on the hook if this project isn’t successful.

The owner of this project also seeks to avoid paying sales taxes on the purchase of materials. City documents don’t say how much this sales tax forgiveness might be worth, but it easily could be several million dollars.

I said: Mayor and council, if it in fact is truly necessary to layer on these incentives in order to do a project in downtown Wichita, I think we need to ask: Why? Why is it so difficult to do a project in downtown Wichita?

Other speakers will probably tell you that rehabilitating historic buildings is expensive. If so, working on historic buildings is a choice they make. They, and their tenants, ought to pay the cost. It’s a lifestyle choice, and nothing more than that.

I told the council that I’m really troubled about the sales tax exemption. Just a few months ago our civic leaders, including this council, recommended that Wichitans add more to our sales tax burden in order to pay for a variety of things.

Only 14 states apply sales tax to food purchased at grocery stores for home consumption, and Kansas has the second-highest statewide rate. We in Kansas, and Wichita by extension, require low-income families to pay sales tax on their groceries. But today this council is considering granting an exemption from paying these taxes that nearly everyone else has to pay.

I told the council that these tax subsidies are not popular with voters. Last year when Kansas Policy Institute surveyed Wichita voters, it found that only 34 percent agreed with the idea of local governments using taxpayer money to provide subsidies to certain businesses for economic development. Then, of course, there is the result of the November sales tax election where city voters emphatically said no to the council’s plan for a sales tax increase.

This project is slated to receive many million in taxpayer-funded subsidy. Now this council proposes to wave a magic wand and eliminate the cost of sales tax for its owners. People notice this arbitrary application of the burden of taxation. They see certain people treated differently under the law, rather than all being treated equally under the law. People don’t like this. It breeds distrust in government. This council can help restore some of this trust by not issuing the Industrial Revenue Bonds and the accompanying sales tax exemption.

In response to my remarks, city council member and mayoral candidate Jeff Longwell had a few comments, as we see here in video from the meeting.

We see city council member and mayoral candidate Jeff Longwell contesting the idea that TIF funds are being rerouted to the benefit of the owners of the project. We’re getting a public parking garage is the city’s response.

Let’s look at the numbers and see if we can evaluate this claim. According to city documents, the project will hold 230 apartments, and the garage is planned to hold 273 parking stalls. You can imagine that many of the apartment renters or buyers will want a guaranteed parking space available to them at all times. And in fact, an early version of the development plan states: “A minimum of 195 spaces will be allocated for use by the apartments. The remaining 103 spaces will be for public parking.” So the city is giving up $12.5 million of tax revenue to gain 103 parking spaces. That’s 121 thousand dollars per parking spot. You can buy a very nice house in Wichita for that.

The actual situation could be even worse for the city’s taxpayers. The development agreement states: “A minimum of 103 parking spaces shall be set aside in the Parking Garage for public parking and the balance for the exclusive use of the residents and guests of Exchange Place Building and Douglas Building.” It also holds this: “This allocation can be revised by Developer as market experience may demonstrate a need to reallocate parking spaces with consent of the City Representative (which consent shall not be unreasonably withheld or delayed).”

So a large portion of the parking garage is not a public benefit. It’s for the benefit of the apartments developer. If not for the city building the garage, the developer would need to provide these parking spaces in order to rent the apartments. And because of tax increment financing, the developer’s own property taxes are being used to build the garage instead of paying for government, like almost all other property taxes do, like your property taxes do. If this was not true, there would be no benefit to the developer for using tax increment financing. And if TIF did not have a real cost to the rest of the city’s taxpayers, we might ask this question: Why not use TIF more extensively? Why can’t everyone benefit from a tax increment financing district?

In his remarks, the city manager mentioned the Block One garage as a public asset, as it was funded by tax increment financing, so let’s look at the statistics there. According to the revised budget for the project, the plan is for 270 stalls in the garage. But 125 stalls are allocated for the hotel, and 100 are allocated for the Slawson development, and 45 allocated for the Kansas Leadership Center building. That leaves precisely zero stalls for public use. That’s right. If these three businesses make full use of their allocation of parking stalls, there will be zero stalls available for the public.

It’s not quite that simple, as Slawson will use its spaces only during the workday, leaving them available to the public evenings and weekends. Perhaps the same arrangement will be made for the Kansas Leadership Center. Being near the Intrust Bank Arena, the garage is used for parking for its events. Except, there aren’t very many event in the arena. In some months there are no events. But you can see that something that is promoted for the public good really turns out to be narrowly focused on private interests.

The manager also mentioned the garage on Main Street. According to city documents, the cost to rehabilitate this garage is $9,685,000, which creates 550 parking stalls. But the city is renting 180 parking stalls to a politically-connected company at monthly rent of $35. We looked at this a few months ago and saw how bad this deal is for city taxpayers.

In his remarks, Mayor Carl Brewer thanked city staff and the developers for “working collectively as a team.” He criticized those who say, in his words, “let’s not do anything, let’s just see where the chips may fall.” As an alternative, he said “we can come together, we can work together, we can work collectively together, and we can bring about change and form it the way we want.”

These remarks illustrate the mayor’s hostility to free markets, that is, to thousands and millions and billions of people trading freely in order to figure out how to allocate scarce resources. But the mayor likens the marketplace of free people to a random event — where the chips may fall, he said. But that’s not how markets work. Markets are people planning for themselves, using their knowledge and preferences and resources in order to build things they want, and what they think others will want. That’s because in markets, the only way you can earn a profit is by doing things that other people want. You have to please customers in order to profit.

But Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer says we need to work collectively together. He says we can form the future the way “we” want. Well, who is the “we” he’s talking about? As we see, the dynamics of free markets results in people doing what other people want. But the “we” the mayor talks about is politicians, bureaucrats, cronies, and do-gooders deciding how they want things to be done, and using your money to do it. That reduces your economic freedom. Your money is directed towards satisfying the goals of politicians and bureaucrats rather than actual, real people.

Here’s how bad this deal really is for Wichita. In my remarks to the council I also said this: Might I also remind the people of Wichita that some of their taxpayer-funded subsidies are earmarked to fund a bailout for a politically-connected construction company for work done on a different project, one not related to Exchange Place except through having common ownership in the past? I don’t think it is good public policy for this city to act as collection agent for a private debt that has been difficult to collect.

I was referring to the fact that the Exchange Place project started as an endeavor of the Minnesota Guys, two developers who bought a lot of property in downtown Wichita and didn’t do very well. They both have been indicted on 61 counts of securities violations in relation to their work in downtown Wichita. One of their projects was the Wichita Executive Center on north Market Street. The Minnesota Guys still owe money to contractors on that project, and some of the taxpayer funding for the Exchange Place project will be used to pay off these contractors.

Why, you may be asking, is the city acting as collection agent for these contractors? There’s an easy answer to this. Money is owed to Key Construction company. We’ve talked about this politically-connected construction firm in the past. Through generous campaign contributions and friendships, Key Construction company manages to gain things like no-bid contracts and other subsidies from the city.

Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer with major campaign donor Dave Wells of Key Construction.
Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer with major campaign donor Dave Wells of Key Construction.
This is a problem. Dave Wells, the president of Key Construction, is a friend of the mayor, as well as frequent and heavy campaign financier for the mayor and other council members. And the mayor voted for benefits for Wells and his company. That is a violation of Wichita city code, or at least it should be. Here’s an excerpt from Wichita city code section 2.04.050, the Code of ethics for council members as passed in 2008: “[Council members] shall refrain from making decisions involving business associates, customers, clients, friends and competitors.”

Dave Wells and Carl Brewer are friends. The mayor has said so. But the City of Wichita’s official position is that this law, the law that seem to plainly say that city council members cannot vote for benefits for their friends, this law does not need to be followed. Even children can see that elected officials should not vote economic benefits for their friends — but not the City of Wichita.

There’s much research that shows that tax increment financing is not an overall benefit to a city’s economy. Yes, it is good for the people that receive it, like the developer of Exchange Place and the mayor’s friends and cronies. But for cities as a whole, the benefit has found to be missing. Some studies have found a negative effect of TIF on economic progress and jobs. That’s right — a city is worse off, as a whole, for using tax increment financing. The evolving episode involving Exchange Place — the massive taxpayer subsidies, the cronyism, the inability of the mayor and council members to understand the economic facts and realities of the transactions they approve, the hostility towards free markets and their benefits as opposed to government planning of the economy — all of this contributes to the poor performance of the Wichita-area economy. This is not an academic exercise or discussion. Real people are hurt by this.

Mayor Brewer has just a month left in office, and there will be a new mayor after that. We, the people of Wichita, have to hope that a new mayor and possibly new council members will chart a different course for economic development in Wichita.

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