Wichita loan agreement subject to interpretation

In 2009 the City of Wichita entered into an ambiguous agreement to grant a forgivable loan, and then failed to follow its own agreement. Worse yet, there has been no improvement to similar contracts. Such agreements empower the city to grant favor at its discretion.

In 2009 the City of Wichita granted a forgivable loan of $25,000 to a company named Premier Processing. In a separate transaction, Sedgwick County did the same. A forgivable loan starts with a grant of cash to a company. The company agrees to conditions or benchmarks, commonly to employ a certain number of people for the period of the loan, usually five years. If these benchmarks are met, the company does not need to repay the loan or any interest. Hence, “forgivable.” If benchmarks are not met, contracts may have “clawback” provisions that are designed to protect taxpayers from the effects of a bad investment in an economic development incentive.

Unfortunately, Premier Processing was not able to meet the conditions of the loan, and at the end of the five year loan period, it repaid the loan principal to both the city and county. That was due to a clawback provision contained in the loan contract.

But the loan contract is confusing. The loan contract, as explained below, appears to call for the payment of interest in case the company is not able to meet the benchmarks. But the city doesn’t interpret the contract that way.

Further, a person reading the contract could reasonably assume that the performance of the company compared to the benchmarks is evaluated each year, and clawback provisions enforced at that time if needed. But that is not the city’s interpretation of the contract.

Is this confusing? Yes, it is. And things haven’t improved. A forgivable loan made by the city last month holds the same language, and also the same potential for confusion.

Clawbacks are problematic. When a company has not achieved its benchmarks, it is likely because the company is not performing well financially and economically. So the company may not have the capacity to make the clawback payments. If a company is struggling financially, aggressively pursuing clawbacks might be the factor that forces a company to shut down. That means fewer jobs. Would it be better to let the company retain its incentives and the city forgo enforcement of clawbacks, even though the company hasn’t met the benchmarks? It is presumably providing some good, after all.

There’s also the consideration that if clawback provisions are strict and cities boast that they will aggressively pursue clawback payments, will companies be discouraged from applying for incentives?

Finally, during the sales tax campaign we were promised greater transparency of economic development activities if the sales tax passed. If transparency would be good in that case, it is also good right now, and should have been provided in the past. But the city made no effort to let citizens know of this episode in our economic development history. In fact, obtaining information about this matter has been difficult.

The confusing loan contract

The relevant pages of the city council agenda packet from August 2009, including the contract controlling the terms of the loan, may be viewed here. Of note is the schedule of forgiveness of debt.

Premier Processing forgiveness of debt schedule.
Premier Processing forgiveness of debt schedule.

Here’s a table of yearly employment benchmarks as supplied by Sedgwick County. (The city was not willing to produce the data it had regarding this.)

Premier Processing schedule of benchmarks from Sedgwick County.
Premier Processing schedule of benchmarks from Sedgwick County.

(Note: In the 2009 agreement, for cumulative wages promised in 2013, the city document has the value $3,618,000. In the data from the county, $2,615,000 is used. The city’s number is probably a typographical error, as the county-supplied number is more in line with a smooth progression from year to year. In either case, actual cumulative wages were less, which is the controlling factor. The amount by which the benchmark was missed does not figure into the calculation.)

In the “FORGIVABLE LOAN AGREEMENT and PROMISSORY NOTE” dated August 11, 2009, Section 2 creates a schedule of employment and wage goals, as shown above. This section also establishes the “first anniversary date” as being August 11, 2010. It also speaks of “each scheduled anniversary thereafter.” Using the customary meaning of “anniversary” that seems to establish August 11 for each succeeding year as an anniversary date.

Section (16) (a) (i) of the agreement holds this language: “If, on the scheduled anniversary, employment levels are below the minimums specified in item (2) of this Agreement, the following repayment is required within thirty (30) days:
a) the outstanding principal balance will be divided by the number of remaining anniversary dates, to produce the principal amount due, plus
b) interest accrued since the previously scheduled anniversary date.”

Looking at the plain meaning of section 16, it seems like for each anniversary date the city would perform this analysis: Based on the calculation specified in section (16) (a) (i), on the 2010 anniversary date, first, calculate “outstanding principal balance will be divided by the number of remaining anniversary dates, to produce the principal amount due.” This calculation is $25,000 / 4 = $6,250.

Then calculate “interest accrued since the previously scheduled anniversary date.” Section 16 (A) (iv) (a) gives 12 percent as the interest rate to be applied in case of default. 12 percent of $6,250 is $750.

Based on the default condition that existed on the first anniversary date, the borrower should have repaid $6,250 + $750 = $7,000. Similar calculations could be made for the following anniversary dates, as on each date the borrower was in default.

But this is not what happened. For one, the city did not collect interest. Correspondence with Tim Goodpasture of the city’s economic development office explained: “The company did not meet the stated objectives. The agreement states that if it does not it may have to repay the principal plus accrued interest. The interest rate defined in this agreement is 0.0% per annum.”

In a telephone call with Goodpasture, I explained my understanding of the contract with payments required on each anniversary date if benchmarks were not met. He said that the clawbacks were enforced. Since the company is still in operation in Wichita, no interest is due.

Goodpasture further explained that the city monitors performance each year. At the end of the loan period, the city looks back at the entire loan, examining year-by-year whether the terms were met. Since the company was not in compliance in any year, it repaid the entire loan. But since the company was still in operation in Wichita, there is no interest due, he explained.

It seems that the confusion derives from the meaning of “anniversary date.” The city seems to follow a policy that at the end of the loan period, which is five years in this case, there will be a retrospective examination that looks at employment levels on each anniversary date.

But the plain language of the contract says “If, on the scheduled anniversary, employment levels are below the minimums specified in item (2) of this Agreement, the following repayment is required within thirty (30) days.” (emphasis added) This seems to establish a yearly examination of the borrowing company, and if the benchmarks are not met, then repayment is required then (within 30 days). Not at the end of the loan term.

But there is this language in section 2 of the contract: “2) Forgiveness of Debt: The Borrower promises to create and maintain minimum employment levels at the Wichita, Kansas facility by August 11, 2014 as shown in the following schedule.” This seems to indicate an examination of the benchmarks at the end of the five-year loan period, which is what the city did. (Except it didn’t charge interest, which it the contract calls for.)

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