When a prominent Wichita business executive and civic leader asked for tax relief, his reasoning allows us to more fully understand the city’s economic development efforts and nature of the people city hall trusts to lead these endeavors.
In November 2013 the Wichita City Council granted an exemption from paying property and sales tax for High Touch Technologies, a company located in downtown Wichita. This application is of more than usual interest as the company’s CEO, Wayne Chambers, is now chair of the Wichita Metro Chamber of Commerce. The Chamber, along with its subsidiary Greater Wichita Economic Development Coalition, are the main agencies in charge of economic development for the Wichita area. Under Chambers’ leadership, these organizations are recommending that the city council authorize a vote on raising the Wichita sales tax for the purposes of economic development.
Let’s take a look at some of the aspects of this company’s application and the city’s agenda packet material (available here).
In its application letter, High Touch argues as follows (emphasis added):
To demonstrate our commitment to Wichita, as well as accommodate our expected growth plans, High Touch Technologies would like to purchase a 106,000 sq. ft. building in Downtown Wichita.
At this time, High Touch Technologies is requesting your support for the issuance of approximately $2,000,000 City of Wichita, Kansas, Taxable Industrial Revenue Bonds. High Touch greatly appreciates any support we can receive on the purchase of this office building through the City’s participation of Industrial Revenue Bonds and the property tax savings associated with this financing method. We intend to continue our growth and expansion over the next several years and these benefits would be helpful in offsetting the substantial capital requirements associated with this project.
High Touch Technologies believes in Wichita and support the community and its economy through corporate stewardship programs. We look forward to working with you and Members of the Council on this project and are always available to answer questions regarding this project or any of our business activities.
Later in the letter:
The applicant agrees to enter into an agreement for Payment in Lieu of Taxes (PILOT) equal to the ad valorem property tax payment amount for the 2013 tax year. The applicant respectfully requests that the payments be capped at that rate for a period of ten (10) years. The tax abatement will permit the applicant to proceed with the anticipated project, allow for its anticipated growth, and result in the public benefits otherwise outlined herein.
The issuance of Industrial Revenue Bonds will be used to lower the cost of office space in the acquired building. The lower costs will give High Touch, Inc. incentive to grow its presence in the corporate office in Wichita. New employees will be added to this Wichita office instead of other offices across the U.S. The savings in office space will allow High Touch, Inc. to use those savings for expansion.
To demonstrate our commitment to Wichita: This is ironic because High Touch is asking to be excused from paying the same property taxes that most other people and business firms have to pay. Instead of commitment, this demonstrates hostility to the taxpayers of Wichita, who will have to pay more so that this company can pay less.
But that irony is surpassed by the spectacle — chutzpa — of the incoming chair of a city’s chamber of commerce threatening to move his company out of the city unless the company receives incentives.
helpful in offsetting the substantial capital requirements: Well. Who wouldn’t appreciate help in offsetting the cost of anything? We should categorize this as unpersuasive.
corporate stewardship programs: Underlying this argument is that because High Touch makes charitable contributions, it should be excused from the same tax burden that most of us face. Here’s a better argument: Be a good corporate citizen by paying your fair share of taxes. Don’t ask for others to pay your share of taxes. That will let citizens make their own charitable contributions, instead of subsidizing what Wayne Chambers want to do.
answer questions regarding this project or any of our business activities: This refers to how the members of the city council will make a judgment that this business is worthy of subsidy, and that others are not. The notion that the City of Wichita can decide which companies are worthy of tax exemptions and investment is an illustration of what economist Frederich Hayek called a “conceit.” It’s so dangerous that his book on the topic is titled “The Fatal Conceit.” The failure of government planning throughout the world has demonstrated that it is through markets and their coordination of dispersed knowledge that we best learn where to direct capital investment. It is simply impossible for this city government to effectively decide in which companies Wichitans should invest their tax dollars. Nonetheless the city council made the decision, and it wants a larger role.
Payment in Lieu of Taxes (PILOT): High Touch is not proposing to totally escape its tax burden. Only partially so, through the PILOT. But the proposed payment is quite generous to the company. A few quick (and probably imprecise) calculations shows how small the PILOT is compared to what taxes would be. City documents indicate the proceeds of the IRBs will be used to pay for $2,000,000 of improvements. This amount of commercial property times 25% assessment ratio times 120.602 mill levy rate equals $60,301 in taxes. High Touch, through the PILOT, is proposing to pay $33,250, just a little more than half of what the taxes might be.
But the true value of the taxes being avoided is probably much higher. As an example, nearby office space is listed for sale at $28 per square foot, and that’s a distress-level price. Applying that price to this building, its value would be almost $3 million. If we look at market capitalization rates, which are generally given as from nine to eleven percent for class A space, we arrive at a much higher value: If we say $10 per square foot rental rate times 106,000 square feet at nine percent cap rate, the value would be almost $12 million. Taxes on that would be about $300,000 per year.
These are back-of-the-envelope calculations using assumed values that may not be accurate, but this gives an idea of what’s actually happening in this transaction: High Touch is seeking to avoid paying a lot of taxes, year after year. But by offering to pay a small fraction as PILOT, the company appears magnanimous.
payments be capped at that rate for a period of ten (10) years: High Touch proposed that what it’s paying in lieu of taxes not be subject to increases. Everyone else’s property taxes, of course, are subject to increases due to either assessed value increases or mill rate increases, or both. High Touch requests an exemption from these forces that almost everyone else faces.
lower the cost of office space: Again, who wouldn’t enjoy lower business or personal expenses? The cost of this incentive spreads the cost of government across a smaller tax base than would otherwise be, raising the cost of government for almost everyone else.
added to this Wichita office instead of other offices across the U.S.: The threat of relocation or expansion elsewhere is routinely used to leverage benefits from frightened local governments. These threats can’t be taken at face value. There is no way to know their validity.
use those savings for expansion: Implicit in this argument is that Wichita taxes prevent companies from expanding. True or not, this is a problem: If taxes are too high, we’re missing out on economic growth. If taxes are not too high, but some companies seek exemption from paying them nonetheless, that’s a problem too.
A prosperous company, establishing the template for seeking business welfare
In a December 2011 interview with the Wichita Eagle, the High Touch CEO bragged of how well the company is doing. The newspaper reported “Ask Wayne Chambers how business is, and he’s going to tell you it’s good. Very good. … Chambers said this week that after two years of robust growth, he’s looking for another one in 2012. ‘We have every reason to believe we’ll continue that growth pattern,’ he said.”
In February 2013 the Wichita Business Journal reported “It should be a great year for High Touch Inc. That’s the initial prediction of CEO Wayne Chambers, who says actions the company took during and leading up to 2012 have positioned High Touch to become a true ‘IT solutions provider.'”
If we take Chambers at his word — that his company is successful — why does High Touch need this business welfare? Economic necessity is usually given as the justification of these incentives. Companies argue that the proposed investment is not feasible and uneconomic without taxpayer participation and subsidy. I don’t see this argument being advanced in this case.
Interestingly, at the time of this application Chambers was co-chair of Visioneering Wichita, which advocates for greater government involvement in just about everything, including the management of the local economy. One of the benchmarks of Visioneering is “Exceed the highest of the annual percentage job growth rate of the U.S., Omaha, Tulsa, Kansas City and Oklahoma City.” As shown in this article and this video, Wichita badly lags the nation and our Visioneering peer cities on this benchmark. Visioneering officials didn’t want to present these results to government officials this year, perhaps on the theory that it’s better to ignore problems that to confront them.
Now Wayne Chambers is the chair of the Wichita Metro Chamber of Commerce. Under his leadership, the Chamber of Commerce recommends that Wichitans pay higher sales tax to support the Chambers’ projects.
Will this blatant cronyism be the template for future management of economic development in Wichita? Let’s hope not, as the working people of Wichita can’t tolerate much more of our sub-par economic growth.