Wichita community improvement districts should have warning signs

At today’s meeting of the Wichita City Council, council members may approve the start of the process to create two Community Improvement Districts in Wichita.

CIDs are a creation of the Kansas Legislature from last year. They allow merchants in a geographic district to collect additional sales tax of up to two cents per dollar. The extra sales tax is used for the exclusive benefit of the CID.

In Wichita, one CID is limited to a Fairfield Inn hotel being built downtown. That CID proposes to collect an additional two cents per dollar sales tax. The second is a retail and office development of about two blocks at Central and Oliver that asks to collect an additional one cent per dollar.

There are a few problems associated these CIDs. One is this: How will potential tenants of a CID know that they will have to charge their customers higher sales tax? I asked this question earlier this year at a council meeting, and no answer was given.

But more importantly, how will consumers considering purchases from a merchant located in a CID know that they’ll have to pay higher sales tax?

The City of Lawrence is considering how to deal with this problem. Normally I’m cautious of adopting ideas coming out of Lawrence, although that is where I received my university education.

In Lawrence the mayor and some city council members are concerned for the welfare of consumers, according to reporting in the Lawrence Journal-World. According to the article: “Commissioners said they have heard multiple concerns from residents who fear they may buy products at locations without knowing they are paying the extra tax.”

That’s a problem. Most people are generally aware of their state’s sales tax rate, and of that in the city where they live. But shoppers are just starting to realize that different stores in a city may charge different sales tax rates. And it’s not in the interest of merchants located in CIDs to publicize that their customers will spend more by shopping in a CID.

So mandated warning signs might be the answer to this issue of consumer protection and education.

Some might say this isn’t much of a problem, as the extra sales tax is just one or two cents. But it’s more than that. It’s an additional one or two cents per dollar spent. Since the sales tax in Wichita is now 7.3 cents per dollar, an increase of one cent per dollar is 13.7 percent more paid in sales tax.

Or, in the case of the Wichita hotel CID, it’s two cents per dollar, or 27.4 percent more sales tax.

Proponents of economic development tools like CIDs often attempt to justify their use by arguing that the proceeds can be used only for certain eligible costs. Because of this restricted use, it’s not like we’re simply giving money to the CID, they argue.

This type of doublespeak actually makes sense to some people. But as long as the CID proceeds pay for something that developers must pay for anyway, these restrictions have no meaningful economic effect.

It’s as if I gave someone $100 with the stipulation that it can be spent only on Mondays. Who could deny that I have not enriched that person by $100, even considering the restriction? As long as the person was going to spend at least $100 on any Monday, the restriction is without meaning.

Some on the Wichita city council, like council member and Vice Mayor Jeff Longwell contend that since some taxes — like the extra sales tax on hotel rooms in a CID — are paid mostly by visitors to Wichita, they’re a wise economic development strategy.

We ought to consider, however, that once visitors to Wichita examine their hotel bills and realize how much sales tax they’ve paid, they’re not going to feel happy about Wichita. The high sales tax rate expressed on the hotel bill may give visitors the impression that is the sales tax that applies to the entire city. Is that the impression we want to leave with our visitors?

Or, if visitors realize they paid extra tax by staying in a hotel located in a certain geographical district, they may regret their decision. They may also wonder why a city allows certain merchants to collect tax at such a high rate.

I have one question: If merchants feel they need to collect additional revenue from their customers, why don’t they simply raise their prices?

Is the answer as simple as this: that it’s preferable for merchants to blame the state for high prices?

3 thoughts on “Wichita community improvement districts should have warning signs”

  1. Perhaps the reason is as simple as financing.

    The CID can obtain some type of financing for these restricted common improvements. All businesses within the CID collect from customers based on sales. The financing is paid off.

    The city certainly should require various types of notification. If you drive through 47th from Hydraulic to K-15, you see announcements of the Oaklawn Improvement District. Small attractive banners announcing you are entering the ‘xyz’ CID would certainly be appropriate and buiness building, as well as part of the common improvements. Your suggestion of signs at each business with more detail would be an appropriate requirement. A requirement for a split billing on Taxes would also be appropriate. Given the computerized cash registers and sales systems available, perhaps a breakdown, of State Sales Tax, Temporary State Sales Tax, Local City Tax, CID Sales Tax etc would be very helpful. These could be included as required by the city.

  2. The city of Ashland just passed a 1 cent sales tax to support our schools. Didn’t want to do it, but since our funding keeps getting cut to support 259 we had no choice. One of the concerns was how this increase would affect our merchants ability to compete with Dog City. Perhaps Wichita should be concerned about increasing sales taxes on the people that come to your marketplace to save money when they no longer save money.

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