At last week’s Wichita City Council meeting, Mayor Carl Brewer spoke in favor of the city’s economic development policy, specifically as it related to a downtown Wichita development partly financed with tax increment financing, or TIF.
The mayor disagreed with those who have appeared at city council meetings to testify against the use of TIF. He told of how the city called mayors’ associations and the National League of Cities, and they said that most large cities use incentives. He learned that cities use some incentives that that Wichita has not yet heard of, which undoubtedly will give city staff some additional tools in the toolbox in the future.
He said “Incentives are available, and we’re on the right track.”
The mayor mentioned that Harvard and Yale experts said that Wichita had too much parking downtown. This is in agreement with the Goody Clancy proposal presented to the city last October. Wichita selected that firm to lead the planning process for the revitalization or redevelopment of downtown Wichita.
He said that in a recent meeting of mayors he attended, he learned that the mayors of other cities are trying to figure out how to use incentives and recruit business. They’re not turning their backs on incentives, he said, adding that “What we’re doing is nothing new.”
He told the audience that “We as a city are going to have to endure change, and we as a city are going to have to understand any time there’s change, there is going to be some pain.”
He added that he appreciated input from those who oppose the various subsidies and incentives the city gives to developers, and the city did check to see if the information they provided to the city was correct.
The National League of Cities, one of the organizations the mayor consulted with regarding the use of incentives for the purpose of economic development, promotes an expansion of the powers of cities to engage in taxpayer-funded economic development subsidies. Its mission statement sounds noble: “Its mission is to strengthen and promote cities as centers of opportunity, leadership, and governance.” But citizens should not be deceived. It promotes interventionist practices rather than economic freedom. An example is its celebration of the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Kelo v. City of New London, which the Wall Street Journal described as “one of the worst in recent years, handing local governments carte blanche to seize private property in the name of economic development.”
The mayor’s refusal to embrace economic freedom — which he has described as a “philosophy” that is not viable in the real world — means that Wichita is likely to continue to engage in the same competitive practices as do almost all other cities. It means that deals like the subsidy granted to Real Development is a template for other taxpayers-funded giveaways. As Council Member Paul Gray has warned, the plans for the redevelopment of downtown Wichita are likely to require many millions — perhaps hundreds of millions of dollars — of public assistance or investment. Since there isn’t enough tax increment financing available to pay for this, we can expect to see proposals for tax increases, such as a new city sales tax of perhaps one cent on the dollar, to pay for downtown redevelopment.
A sales tax is the model for economic development in Oklahoma City. This has been promoted to Wichita and Sedgwick County leaders as a good idea for Wichita to pursue.
What Wichita is missing out on is a way to truly distinguish itself from all the other cities and counties that are all using the same economic development tools. Presently about all we can do is offer subsidies that are larger than what other cities offer. But if we decided to forgo the use of the usual economic development subsidies and incentives, that would be something very unusual. It could really put Wichita on the map as a place to locate to.
Since these economic development incentives and subsidies require other taxpayers, both individuals and businesses, to pay for their cost, Wichita could reduce the cost of doing business in Wichita for everyone. A company considering locating to Wichita could be confident that it would be operating in a low-tax environment. It wouldn’t have to hope that it fits into the city’s economic development policy guidelines. It wouldn’t have to hope that politicians and bureaucrats view its application favorably.
Further, once a company locates here, it wouldn’t have to worry that other companies will receive incentives and subsidies that it will have to pay for. It would not need to worry about the other costs that subsidies impose, such as subsidized companies having lower overhead and are therefore better able to compete for employees.
Eliminating interventionist policies from city hall could have other benefits. Is there a “good ‘ol boy” network of insiders that use Wichita city hall as their personal piggy bank? By eliminating the practice of granting incentives and subsidies, we could reduce or eliminate the cynical attitude of many citizens towards city government.
We wouldn’t have to worry whether the campaign contributions made by those seeking favor from city hall were made in the interest of good government, or made in the hopes of getting a TIF district or other subsidy passed through the council.
These ideas, however, are not seriously considered by the mayor or any city council members, at least to my knowledge. Instead, we in Wichita are doomed to finance an escalating economic development arms race. The economic freedom of Wichitans will decline.
This is noteworthy in light of the mayor’s curious assertion in his remarks that we will have to “endure pain” caused by change. We’ve changed nothing.