Despite a government tax giveaway program, problems with delinquent special assessment taxes in Wichita have become worse.
It’s surprising to read reporting in the Wichita Eagle that the city is owed millions in delinquent special assessment taxes. (City of Wichita owed $4.8 million in delinquent special assessments, August 15, 2015)
That’s because in 2012 the city adopted a program that rebated property taxes to buyers of new homes. The goal of the program was twofold: To help builders sell homes, and to help the city collect delinquent special assessment taxes.
In February of that year, according to city documents, “Current delinquent specials on vacant lots within the City of Wichita are an estimated $3.3 million.”
Now the delinquent taxes have risen to $4.8 million.
This wasn’t supposed to happen. At the council meeting Wes Galyon, president of the Wichita Area Builders Association, told the council, according to meeting minutes: “This program will also aid in eliminating current delinquencies on lots and new home subdivisions in the City and contribute to the developers and builders being able to keep taxes and specials current on buildable lots that they own and plan to build on.”
The city manager told the council, according to meeting minutes: “The other issue was the ability to collect on delinquent taxes and special assessments. Stated that is becoming a growing problem for us as we look at what is happening with the economy and home builders.”
A program that should not have been adopted
In his remarks to city council members in February 2012, Wichita city manager Robert Layton told the council, according to meeting minutes: “Stated they took a businesslike approach as they went through this and designed the program. Stated they consulted Wichita State University and the report references a 1.48 return on our investment just in terms of the present value of the direct and indirect jobs that are created as well as the construction expenditures, which was important to them.”
The manager was referring to an analysis prepared by Wichita State University Center for Economic Development and Business Research, titled Economic Impact of Proposed WABA Incentives, February 1, 2012.
In these analyses, the city attempts to estimate costs and benefits of a program, and adopt only those programs that have a positive ratio of benefits over costs. (Generally the city requires that the ratio be 1.3 to 1 or greater.) Benefits are, according to the study, “sales tax revenues, from construction worker spending and construction material purchases, and property tax revenues.” The costs are the lost revenue due to the tax rebates. Following is an excerpt from a table that presents the results of analysis.
No Incentives Incentives Public Benefits $2,364,429 $3,004,315 Public Costs $0 $2,032,312 Net Public Benefits $2,364,429 $730,457 Return on Investment N/A 1.48
Some, like the Wichita city manager, focused on the return on investment (ROI) ratio of 1.48 if the tax rebate incentive is used. (There is no such ratio if there are no incentives, as there is no investment.) The study explained the ratio this way: “For every dollar invested, the city will receive the initial dollar plus an additional 48 cents in return.”
That sounds like a good deal, and the ratios like this that are calculated by CEDBR are often used by the city to justify incentives.
But there is another way to look at this deal: the net value to the city. In this case, if the city did not offer the incentives, the benefits to the city would be $2,364,429. If incentives were used, the benefits would be $730,457. This means that if the city does nothing, it is $1,633,972 to the better.
That’s right: Even though the city had an opportunity to make an investment with a purportedly high ROI, it would be better off, dollar-wise, if it did not make the investment.
This illustrates the caveats of working with ratios. They are simply “the relation between two similar magnitudes with respect to the number of times the first contains the second.” A ratio says nothing about the absolute magnitude of the numbers.
For more about the problems CEDBR study found with the program, see Wichita new home tax rebate program: The analysis.