Mark Funkhouser wasn’t right very often, but his insistence that Kansas City focus its primary redevelopment program on blighted areas may be worth considering before you decide, in a few weeks, if you want to raise your taxes.
In his first speech, you’ll recall, then-mayor Funkhouser talked about tax increment financing, or TIF, the program where a building project’s new taxes are used to reimburse part of the development costs.
“The first TIF proposal that reaches my desk had darn well better be from the east side,” he thundered, promising to focus the subsidy on the city’s poorest neighborhoods.
Of course, the first TIF proposal to reach Funkhouser’s desk wasn’t really from the east side. He signed it anyway. And two significant east side TIF proposals, at the Citadel site and Bannister Mall, crumpled during his time in office.
Never mind. Hisidea
was sound: TIF was originally conceived as a way to encourage builders to take on tough projects in tough areas like the east side, bringing jobs and renewal to areas challenged by blight and decay.
TIF is almost never that in Kansas City. Instead, it has become a catch-all subsidy for anyone who wants to build something, somewhere. And how could it not? Once one business gets a handout, the next one insists on it for competitive reasons.
So when a hotelier recently said it needed $10 million to $13 million in tax-increment financing for an $80 million project near the Plaza — so that room rates could stay low while the high-rise inn stays “nice” — most Kansas Citians probably shrugged. They’ve seen this movie before.
That indifference might win the day, were it not for the upcoming sales tax election.
Boosters of Question 1 promise to eliminate several city levies in exchange for a half-cent sales tax hike. They don’t say it, but passing Question 1 would also unquestionably increase the city’s overall tax burden, by about $24 million a year, money that would come in part from the city’s poorest residents.
That might be a good deal if all that extra $24 million went for better streets or cleaner parks. Alas, about $4 million would go to — you guessed it — reimbursements for TIF projects, possibly including that new hotel near the Plaza.
So: Eastsiders get higher taxes instead of TIF projects, while that nice Plaza-side hotel gets a public subsidy so that room rates remain low.
Funkhouser is long gone, but perhaps Kansas City voters should asksomeone about the link between those public policy choices before Election Day. His successor might be a good place to start.