By John Todd
I am troubled by what I see the Wichita city government doing to the owners of the Checkers Grocery store located near the Wichita Planeview neighborhood. At the public hearing before the Wichita City Council on September 14th, one of the Checkers owners testified that their grocery business has been serving the people of Planeview for many years. After listening to the owner’s testimony and listening to testimony presented by Planeview customers at the hearing, it appears obvious to me that the Checkers grocery store’s Planeview customer base is a vital part of their business.
At the hearing, the Checkers owner expressed his opposition to the massive subsidy our city was offering the developer of the proposed Save-A-Lot grocery store in Planeview. His concern was the unfair economic advantage city government was creating for their competitor through the use of public funding programs.
The total economic incentive package city officials were offering the Save-A-Lot project through tax increment financing (TIF) and Community Improvement Districts (CID) funding packages was $880,440 of total project cost of $2,083,430. That figure is in excess of 40 percent of the total project cost.
I believe the Checkers grocery store owner’s concerns are valid, and the massive subsidy that the Wichita City Council has approved for their Save-A-Lot competitor is wrong. The council vote was 7 to 0 in favor of the subsidy with no consideration given by council members for Checkers or any other taxpaying grocery businesses that competes in the Wichita market.
The CID funding program, as approved by the Wichita city council, allows the Save-A-Lot grocery store to charge an additional two cents per dollar sales tax. This extra sales tax is then given to the project developer. Under the guise of helping an economically “underserved” neighborhood, customers of the new Planeview Save-A-Lot grocery store will soon be paying 9.3 percent sales tax on their grocery purchases. This additional sales tax enriches the developer and punishes the residents of the Planeview neighborhood.
The TIF funding program, also approved by the city council, diverts future real estate taxes into developers’ pocket instead of paying for police and fire protection and the schools that educate our children.
The subsidy programs our city is offering the Planeview Save-A-Lot grocery project are great for the developer, but bad for competing businesses and their customers. They create an unfair advantage for other grocery stores and result in increased sales tax for the very residents it is intended to help. The grocery store will no doubt expect fire and police protection and the grocery store customers will want schools for their children. Yet, the store will not be paying anywhere near its fair share for these services, as it will continue to effectively pay the same property taxes as does a vacant lot. Perhaps these programs should be renamed “The Developer Relief Act!”
Under TIF, the developer is the winner and the people that pay the city’s bills lose. In other words, one guy wins and the taxpaying public loses. The harm is that by exercising its power to choose winners and losers, government discourages the risk-takers that invest their own money in projects. The potential for abuse of government’s power to create winners and losers in the marketplace creates a sense of regulatory uncertainty.
This uncertainty serves to keep private capital on the sidelines rather than being invested, as businessmen are justifiably concerned that the city may prop up a subsidized competitor in their same market. Not only do entrepreneurs have to contend with all the usual economic risks they face, they must also face political risk coming from Wichita City Hall. No one can plan ahead with this type of government involvement tampering with markets.
Unfortunately, as is the case when government exercises its power to influence economic development outcomes, the hidden results of this intervention does more harm than good. Government mandated stimulus programs, even on the local level, are not good public policy.
State law gives the Sedgwick County Commissionand USD 259 (the Wichita public school district) until October 14th to voice objection to the diversion of tax funds away from county services and schools and into the pocket of the Planeview Save-A-Lot grocery developer. I hope they exercise the check over local government’s abuse of local economic stimulus tools by voting to opt out the county taxpayer from the city’s abuse of their economic power. Sedgwick County commissioners need to step to the line and put a stop to this nonsense!