At this week’s meeting of the Wichita City Council there was an item of good news: the closing of the Old Town tax increment financing, or TIF, district. But the expressed attitude of city council members towards TIF districts indicates that citizens must be concerned that the council will attempt to use this harmful form of developer and corporate welfare in the future.
Citizens need to be made aware of the uninformed and misinformed views of council members, particularly Janet Miller, who was the primary speaker on this item Tuesday. Most of the other city council members, however, also share these views, even those who consider themselves conservative and opposed to intervention in the economy.
While Miller expressed a correct view of the mechanics of TIF districts, she — and the other council members too — always miss the economic meaning of these districts.
In her remarks, Miller disagreed with a citizen who said that the TIF district “helped out” the property owners in the district. Miller said: “In tax increment financing districts, it is the property owners’ taxes that they pay, that pay the cost of the public improvements in that area. … The taxes that they paid in on their increased valuations in property have paid for the improvements.”
She also said that with careful planning the community benefits from TIF districts, and that we should look forward to “future great things that are going to come from this kind of initiative and creativity.”
It’s quite easy to see the mistakes and fallacies in Miller’s remarks. Do TIF districts help out the favored developers? Of course they do. Why else would the city create them?
A typical scenario is that a developer has an idea to build something, but claims a “gap” between the financial resources at their disposal and what the project costs. City staff checks the developer’s arithmetic and agrees. So the city creates a TIF district, and the project is able to proceed.
So the TIF financing filled the gap. How can this be interpreted as doing anything but helping the developer?
The city and council members like Jeff Longwell regularly claim that TIF districts don’t cost the city anything. We can easily see the errors in this thinking. Over the past 17 years, did Old Town require any attention from the police department? Of course it did. Old Town consumes vast police resources. In 2008 Wichita Police Chief Norman Williams was quoted in the pages of the Wichita Eagle: “Williams said that as Old Town changed from a warehouse district to an entertainment district, it has presented a ‘tremendous challenge’ to public safety.”
As was brought forth in Tuesday’s city council meeting, Old Town does pay some property taxes that go into the city’s general fund and can be used to pay for the police protection that Old Town requires. The valuation before the TIF district was formed was said to be $1 million dollars. Now it’s $9 million. So the city’s general fund has received taxes on $1 million in property valuation to pay for all the services Old Town requires. The property taxes paid on the other $8 million in valuation are directed back to the district for the benefit of the property owners.
So yes, TIF districts like Old Town do cost the city. Someone has to pay for the cost of police protection and other government services in Old Town. Its property taxes don’t even come close.
That’s what the city council doesn’t understand (or maybe it does, see below): The entire purpose of TIF districts is to benefit the property in the district.
How TIF districts benefit recipients
Here’s how it works. When using tax increment financing, a geographic district is formed. The property taxes being paid by a property in the district at the time of formation is noted and called the base. Usually this property is not very valuable, so this base is a low value. In the case of Old Town, it was $1 million.
Then a development plan is created. Based on that plan and the property taxes that the completed project will likely pay, the city will borrow money and give it to the developers. While cities like to say that TIF funds can be used only for things with a public purpose like infrastructure, this doesn’t make any difference. (If the expenditures had a truly public purpose, why wouldn’t the city pay for them without a TIF district?)
After the project is completed, the tax appraiser notices that there’s something new and valuable where there wasn’t before, and he levies a higher tax bill on the property. The difference between the original taxes — the base — and the new taxes is called the increment.
Under normal conditions when new property comes on the tax rolls, the tax revenue is used to provide public services such as police and fire protection. The school district is usually a recipient of a large portion of the new tax revenue, which might be used to pay for the schooling of residents of the new housing in the district, for example.
But in a TIF district, what happens to this new tax revenue — the increment?
Recall that the city borrowed money and gave it to the developers. The new property taxes — the increment — is used to pay off these bonds.
So council member Miller is correct, in a way. Old Town property owners paid increased property taxes.
But when these increased taxes are used to pay off bonds that exclusively benefit Old Town, how is this any different from not paying?
Consider development not in a TIF district. Developers may borrow money to build something. Then they have to make loan payments and higher tax payments.
But TIF developers pay only higher taxes. There are no loan payments, as their increased property tax payments are used to pay off the loan.
Public choice in action
I wrote earlier that the city council doesn’t understand this. It may be possible that council member Miller, the mayor, and others do understand this, but they decide to go ahead and create TIF districts and other forms of developer subsidy and welfare nonetheless.
That’s entirely possible, as TIF districts and other corporate welfare illustrate the worst aspects of public choice theory in action. In this case, we have a situation where a small group of people — the subsidized developers — have a huge and powerful motive to obtain TIF financing and other forms of subsidy. Politicians and bureaucrats want to see these things happen too, as they feel a need to justify themselves and increase their spheres of influence and power.
Average citizens may realize that these things cost them, but it’s a relatively small amount of money — certainly in contrast to the millions that subsidized developers received — so their motive to oppose them is small. This is a reason why many people don’t bother to vote.
Don’t forget that politicians want to receive campaign contributions, too. Developers who seek subsidy from city hall generally contribute to all city council members. It’s difficult to see how someone who has a political ideology — say fiscal conservatism — could contribute to all city council members. But they do.
Miller has received large amounts of campaign contributions from those who have benefited from TIF financing and other corporate welfare in the past, and who plan to benefit again in the future. She’s not alone in this regard.