There is no Wichita city retail sales tax, but the city collects tax revenue from citizens when they buy utilities, just like a sales tax.
Some Wichita city officials tout the fact that Wichita has no city sales tax, even though this is contrary to their and the city’s recommendation to voters in November 2014.
But the city has a sales tax. It’s called a “franchise fee” or “franchise tax,” depending on which city documents you’re reading. Either way, it’s just like a sales tax applied to your utility bill: gas, electric, cable television, water, sewer, or telephone.
In 2015, Wichita collected $44.3 million in franchise taxes. By comparison, the city’s share of the county-wide one cent per dollar sales tax was $58.0 million.1 Another context: In 2014 the city estimated that a one cent per dollar city sales tax would generate $80 million per year.
For 2017 the city is budgeting for $48.4 million in franchise fees.2 For 2018, $49.8 million.
What is the purpose of franchise taxes? The Wichita city budget explains: “Franchise Fees — These revenues are based on agreements between the City and local utilities. Generally, these agreements are long term and result in payments to the City of 5% of utility revenues. All franchise fee revenues are credited to the General Fund.”
The Wichita city code amplifies:
Sec. 3.93.350. — Payment of taxes — Franchise fee not a tax.
The franchise fees required herein as part of any franchise shall be in addition to, not in lieu of, all taxes, charges, assessments, licenses, fees and impositions otherwise applicable that are or may be imposed by the city, except that the franchisee shall be entitled to a credit in payment of franchise fees in the amount of any telecommunications service occupation tax due pursuant to Chapter 3.01 of this Code, as may be amended. The franchise fee is compensation for use of the right-of-way and shall in no way be deemed a tax of any kind.
There is some confusion over the naming of this concept. The city’s Comprehensive Annual Financial Report uses “franchise taxes.” The budget documents and the code shown above use “franchise fees.” Either way, this is extra money people must pay when they use utilities, as illustrated on these excerpts from electric and gas bills.
But should city residents have to pay this tax or fee? The city explains that the fee is “compensation for use of the right-of-way.” That makes sense. If someone owns something and someone else wants to use it, charging a fee is reasonable, if the parties agree.
Except: Who owns the right-of-way? The people of Wichita, of course. So our city government is charging us a tax (or fee) to use something we own. That’s clever — deviously clever. And something that only government can do.
I don’t want to give our city leaders any ideas, but when the city is complaining about not having enough revenue to fund everything it wants, it should look at franchise taxes. (Sorry, I mean fees.) While the city budget explains that the rates are the results of agreements between the utility companies and the city, why would utility companies object to an increase in franchise tax rates? They would simply pass along the tax to their customers, just as retail stores do when the state raises the sales tax rate. Certainly the water and sewer utilities would not object, as they are owned by the city.