A downtown Wichita project receives free sales taxes and a bypass of Wichita’s code of conduct for city council members. Remarks to the Wichita City Council, March 3, 2015.
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.
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.
But 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. So 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.
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.
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.
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.
The ethics problem for the city
Although I did not mention this to the council, Mayor Carl Brewer should not have voted on this matter. The politically-connected construction company that benefits from this deal through a taxpayer-funded bailout Key Construction. Its president, Dave Wells, is a friend of the mayor, as well as frequent and heavy campaign financier for the mayor and other council members.
This is a problem, as there is a law in Wichita. Here’s an excerpt from Section 2.04.050 Code of ethics for council members from the Wichita city code 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 Section 2.04.050 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.