Good hotel ruling offers lessons for critics and supporters of taxpayer subsidies

A judge has ruled that Kansas City does not have to hold an election on financing the proposed downtown convention hotel.
A judge has ruled that Kansas City does not have to hold an election on financing the proposed downtown convention hotel.

Thursday’s positive court ruling on a proposed downtown hotel provides two lessons to Kansas Citians.

First, critics of taxpayer incentives can’t put unconstitutional limitations on how the city awards public assistance.

Second, people need to get involved earlier in upfront activities to affect how these subsidies are awarded. They can’t parachute in at the last minute to challenge decisions made by elected officials.

Jackson County Circuit Judge Jennifer Phillips essentially gave the go-ahead to a reasonable plan to use some public financing to build a large convention hotel. Supporters should rev up their efforts to move forward with the project.

Phillips’ decision came after a petition group said it wanted Kansas Citians to vote on the assistance package approved by the City Council for the hotel.

Council members had refused to put the petition on a 2016 ballot, pointing out that the city already had signed contracts with the hotel’s backers.

The judge basically agreed that the ordinance proposed by the petitioners violated the state Constitution.

The ruling has disheartened some citizens who question or oppose public incentives for private projects.

It’s true that Kansas City’s approach to handing out public subsidies has many problems. Primarily, positive collaboration too often is lacking among the city, schools, counties, libraries and other affected taxing entities.

The judge’s ruling is a reminder to these taxing jurisdictions that — if they have a problem with a tax incentive — they need to be loudly and publicly stating their positions. That’s true when a matter is before a board such as the Tax Increment Financing Commission and when it gets to the City Council.

In addition, Kansas Citians who are interested in slowing down the spread of taxpayer subsidies will have to be more active upfront. They can’t wait until the process is over — as occurred with the downtown hotel — to charge in and hope to alter the outcome.

The best time to do that is to speak up during hearings held by public agencies and the City Council.

The roles of elected officials and citizens in giving out taxpayer subsidies will remain complicated. But the latest ruling indicates we need far more vigorous discussions of these incentives before decisions are made at City Hall.

Some new council members say they will be tougher on projects that would divert future taxes from schools, libraries and counties. We will find out soon enough if the members are serious.