Taxpayers’ Subsidy Skepticism Is Warranted
The Kansas City Star published a piece last week about subsidized development and its opposition in the region. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the people who profit from taxpayer subsidies are worried that those of us who pay for those subsidies are unconvinced of their value. This is important because Kansas City spends or diverts away millions in taxpayer dollars on private development each year that then cannot be used for schools, police, or infrastructure such as roads and sewers.
Kansas City Councilman Scott Wagner worries that people need to be convinced of a particular project before moving ahead.
“Increasingly, the burden is falling on the developer to show residents that there will be a benefit for the area, that the ‘but for’ clause is real,” Wagner said. “If people don’t believe a financial need exists, it’s easy to fight it.”
Is this too much to ask? Should taxpayers just trust the Economic Development Corporation (EDC)—a nonprofit organization funded mostly from the fees assessed on the projects it recommends—to have the final say? Apparently, yes. According to one developer, the people just don’t know enough to have a worthwhile point of view,
Whitney Kerr Sr., a longstanding area real estate developer, fears an anti-development tide could thwart the city’s momentum. He worries that “people who have no knowledge of real estate economics” have become too empowered.
Clearly, Kerr and developers like him would prefer the people to just be quiet and keep forking over their tax dollars to the supposed real estate experts at City Hall. Remember, it was former Mayor Kay Barnes who actually said in 2006 of the Power and Light District,
"We're going to look like geniuses" in five or 10 years, Barnes said. The city is paying low interest rates for projects that are capable of paying off the debt, she added.
Quite the opposite, the District is a swirling financial black hole that will swallow up about $15 million from the general fund each year from now through 2040. And there is no evidence that the District has netted the city any additional businesses, jobs, or tax revenue. In fact, according to the Missouri Department of Revenue, projects in tax increment financing (TIF) districts regularly fail to meet their developers’ own job creation projections. The great cost and low return of these subsidies is the reason that states and localities have been reforming TIF across the country. California, which was the first state to adopt TIF in 1952, ended it altogether in 2012.
Popular opposition to these development subsidies isn’t a product of the people’s ignorance of real estate economics, but rather of their understanding. They don’t want to hand their money to Kerr and others for dubious development projects when the city cannot keep Westport from flooding in the rain.
As for Mr. Kerr and other apologists for the status quo, it is unlikely that they have read a lot of the economic research literature on but-for analysis, or else they would understand the public’s discomfort. As a public service, here is a link to a study conducted by the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill on TIF in Chicago. Before complaining about the lack of “knowledge of real estate economics” in others, perhaps they should educate themselves.