Paying taxes, but not quite

TaxesA complicated economic development mechanism used in Wichita hides the true business welfare transaction.

In today’s Wichita Eagle “serial entrepreneur” and hotelier Jack DeBoer talks about a new apartment project to be built in downtown Wichita, just across the Arkansas River from the WaterWalk development.

In the article, the reporter writes:

The Wichita apartments are expected to be complete by spring 2014, DeBoer said. They will be on 4.4 acres of city-owned land, which Value Place is leasing for $1 a year for 93 years. That agreement was approved by the Wichita City Council last September. DeBoer noted that Value Place is not receiving any other incentives. “We’ll pay full taxes.”

Two things: First, DeBoer gets to use 4.4 acres of land for 93 years for a total cost of $93.00. The city paid $919,695 to acquire the land in 1994 and 1995. The city did, however, require DeBoer to pay the full $93 in advance.

Second, the claim of paying full taxes: This project is located within a tax increment financing (TIF) district. The entire purpose of TIF is to capture the property taxes being paid and divert the funds to the benefit of the payer.

(Strictly, only the increment in property tax is routed back to the payer. Usually almost all the property tax paid falls in the increment. For more about this particular development, see Wichita WaterWalk apartment deal not good for citizens.)

So, when we narrowly construe DeBoer’s claim, he’s correct. But in the larger context, when we follow the money and look at the true economic transactions, he’s wrong. And the Wichita Eagle doesn’t notice, or doesn’t care.

TIF is great for those who get it. But what about the rest of us? Regarding the effect of tax increment financing (TIF) districts on economic development, economists Richard F. Dye and David F. Merriman have studied tax increment financing extensively. Their paper The Effects of Tax Increment Financing on Economic Development bluntly states the overall impact of TIF: “We find clear and consistent evidence that municipalities that adopt TIF grow more slowly after adoption than those that do not.”

Later in the same paper the authors conclude: “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.”

Summarizing, the authors write:

In summary, the empirical evidence suggests that TIF adoption has a real cost for municipal growth rates. Municipalities that elect to adopt TIF stimulate the growth of blighted areas at the expense of the larger town. We doubt that most municipal decision-makers are aware of this tradeoff or that they would willingly sacrifice significant municipal growth to create TIF districts. Our results present an opportunity to ponder the issue of whether, and how much, overall municipal growth should be sacrificed to encourage the development of blighted areas.

In their later article Tax Increment Financing: A Tool for Local Economic Development, Dye and Merriman further explain the results of their research:

TIF districts grow much faster than other areas in their host municipalities. TIF boosters or naive analysts might point to this as evidence of the success of tax increment financing, but they would be wrong. Observing high growth in an area targeted for development is unremarkable.

So TIFs are good for the favored development that receives the subsidy — not a surprising finding. It’s what elected officials, bureaucrats, and newspaper editorial writers can see and focus on. But 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)

So if we are concerned about overall growth in Wichita, we need to realize that TIF simply shifts development from one place to another. The overall impact, according to uncontroverted research, is negative: less growth, not more.

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