Some bad ideas never die

On a vote of 87-9, the House approved HF 641, which would authorize a new and wasteful incentive program that would divert money from the state general fund to support hotel and retail projects in cities.

Peter Fisher
Peter Fisher

The Iowa House today proved that bipartisanship is no guarantor of good policy. On a vote of 87-9, the House approved HF 641, which would authorize a new and wasteful incentive program that would divert money from the state general fund to support hotel and retail projects in cities. So we will be taking money that should be supporting state investments in education, health, the environment, public safety, and other services, and using it to subsidize hotel developers and retail strip malls. All in the name of “economic development.”

Cities already have more than enough ability to divert taxes to development projects through property tax TIFs and abatements. There is no need for additional diversions of revenue from other jurisdictions.

The House bill would authorize any city or county to establish “Reinvestment Districts.” From the date of establishment onward for the next 25 years, 4 cents of the 6-cent statewide sales tax, and all 5 cents of the state hotel-motel tax, from all “new” sales or room rentals would be diverted from the state general fund to the city for use in the district. What uses? Pretty much anything; any building, public or private, could qualify for a subsidy, and there is no limit on how much of the cost of a project can be subsidized.

“New sales” are sales from a business that first got a state sales-tax permit (or hotel-motel tax permit) after the date the district was established. Given the high rate of turnover among retail businesses, it is not hard to imagine a scenario in which most of the sales taxes in a district are diverted from the state general fund even though there has been little additional economic activity, or even decline. All that is needed is that old businesses are replaced by new ones, even if that means replacing an Applebees with a pawn shop.

Why will a city ever again be content to finance commercial redevelopment on their own, or with property tax TIFs alone? Why will a developer ever again finance a project entirely from private sources – try to remember, if you can, when that was the norm – when he or she can just ask the city to get the money from the state?

More importantly, what will become of market standards? While every legislator who voted for the bill surely believes in free markets and private enterprise, this measure undermines markets. There was a time, before the incentive wars got out of hand, when a project had to stand on its own – there had to be a sufficient market to support it, and banks had to be convinced that revenues would be sufficient to repay the loans. No more. Now local government officials are determined to force development to happen when it can’t stand on its own, creating oversupply that hurts existing businesses. Or the private sector happily rakes in all the new incentive cash to do something it would have done anyway. Those are really the only two alternatives for a local market activity: either market conditions support it and it can be financed privately, or the market can’t support it, and the city uses taxpayer money to force overbuilding.

We can hope that this bill gets careful scrutiny before it goes any further.

Posted by Peter Fisher, Research Director

Iowa Development Waters Still Safe for Pirates

Anti-piracy provisions newly incorporated into Iowa’s TIF law need to be implemented for all economic development subsidies.

Peter Fisher
Peter Fisher

The Iowa Economic Development Authority (IEDA) just announced that it has awarded $304,000 in state tax incentives to Putco Inc. to move from Story City to a location about 35 miles away in Polk County. The Polk County Board of Supervisors will hear a proposal on Wednesday that the board add $363,000 in tax abatements to the incentive package.

Why is the state helping to finance the piracy of jobs from one place to another in Iowa? This is not economic development for the state, and in fact appears to be counter to any reasonable interpretation of state law.

The Iowa Code, Chapter 15A.1 (2), dealing with economic development, states that “funds should not be used to attract a business presently located within the state to relocate to another portion of the state unless the business is considering in good faith to relocate outside the state or unless the relocation is related to an expansion which will generate significant new job creation.”

According to  The Des Moines Register, the alternative under consideration by Putco, a manufacturer of car and truck accessories, was a new site in the Story City area, not out of state. Furthermore, the IEDA project report shows no “jobs retained,” as there would be if an out-of-state move had been threatened.

And the new jobs to be created? Five. Over the past 10 years, almost 84,000 new jobs were created every year by establishments expanding in Iowa. Against that number, how in the world can five jobs be judged a “significant” addition?

As the Iowa Fiscal Partnership has argued previously, the “new jobs” exception in Iowa’s anti-piracy statute is so vague as to constitute a loophole large enough to drive a moving van through. In fact, the Iowa Legislature apparently agreed with this assessment. The Tax Increment Financing reform bill passed by the General Assembly and signed by the Governor includes an anti-piracy provision devoid of any job expansion loophole; a move is a move.

Firms will still move facilities from time to time, but they need not be subsidized by taxpayers to do so, as was the case with the $18 million or more provided by Coralville to entice Von Maur away from another location in Johnson County. Such moves won’t be subsidized by TIF subsidies anymore.

Unfortunately, the basic anti-piracy statute that applies to all economic development subsidies, quoted above, was not amended, leaving state agencies and local governments free to interpret “significant job creation” as loosely as they please, for any subsidies other than TIF. One wonders what the folks at IEDA feel is the limit. Three jobs? One job? Given the rather wobbly record of firms receiving state incentives in the past — job creation targets are often not met — it is quite possible that in the end this move will result in no net increase in jobs at all, above the 40 currently employed in Story City, or even a loss in jobs if the new facility is more automated and firm sales fail to meet expectations.

So it appears that taxpayer-subsidized piracy is alive and well in Iowa. The restrictions newly incorporated into TIF law need to be made part of the general law on economic development subsidies. If property tax payers should be protected from such abuse of public funds, why not state taxpayers generally?

Posted by Peter S. Fisher, Research Director

Cities have development tools beyond TIF

The indefensible thing in the 2012 legislative session would be to make significant commercial property tax changes without fixing abuses of TIF.

Mike Owen
Mike Owen

The Business Record’s Kent Darr has an interesting story about Des Moines City Manager Rick Clark’s reaction to the commercial property tax issue, debated Tuesday in the Iowa House.

Clark expressed caution about unintended consequences that can result from tinkering with the property tax laws, which is a legitimate concern. But one of his own remarks demands caution as well. That is his concern about potential changes to tax-increment financing, or TIF, which are being considered separately this year. From Darr’s story:

“For cities in Iowa, it’s the only game in town,” Clark said. “It’s the only thing we have to encourage and promote economic activity; the other tools really don’t work. If we take away TIF or make it less effective than it is today, we’re really in a world of hurt.”

This argument is often raised and it’s just not necessarily so. First, cities do have other tools available, such as abatements. TIF is a tool that simply provides an extra revenue stream to fund those tools; in some cases, it may make sense to pool funds of various local government entities for a given project, but in others, possibly not.

Peter Fisher
Peter Fisher

IPP Research Director Peter Fisher addressed this in his recent report for the Iowa Fiscal Partnership examining TIF use in Johnson County:

It is important to understand that TIF is not synonymous with economic development incentives. TIF is merely a financing mechanism. Cities can and do promote economic redevelopment and job creation in a variety of ways; cities can build facilities to accommodate private projects, they can provide tax abatements for both residential and non‐residential property, and they can issue bonds to finance infrastructure, all without TIF. But TIF has become the mechanism of choice to finance economic development incentives in part because TIF creates the illusion that such incentives are costless, and in part because TIF in actuality shifts costs to other taxpayers.

Second, it should not be assumed that subsidies are effective. Does the subsidy cause the economic activity, or does the activity cause the subsidy? Sometimes it’s hard to say.

Again, Fisher:

Furthermore, much (perhaps the majority) of TIF revenue is not used to incentivize development at all, but rather to finance routine city infrastructure spending that otherwise could be financed with city bonds, retired entirely by city taxpayers, or charged to developers.

Sensible reforms would not render TIF “less effective” for its intended purposes to the extent subsidies are effective now. Fisher’s recent op-ed in The Des Moines Register outlined five common-sense reforms that would improve TIF. They would stop what would have to be acknowledged as abuses — for example, stopping cities from using TIF to fund a project in one school district from the tax base of another.

The indefensible thing in the 2012 legislative session would be to make significant commercial property tax changes — big cuts for businesses at the expense of homeowners or critical public services — without fixing abuses of TIF. Politicians frequently ignore TIF and other preferences when they start ranting about property taxes on business.

Posted by Mike Owen, Assistant Director

Case is compelling to reform TIF

Another public TIF reform meeting is scheduled Saturday, Jan. 21, from 10 a.m. to 11:30 a.m. at the Johnson County Health and Human Services Building, 855 S. Dubuque St. Iowa City.

Peter Fisher
Peter Fisher

A consensus seems to be developing to reform tax-increment financing, or TIF. This represents an understanding that responsible use of taxpayer funds is not a partisan issue. The iron is hot for reform, now.

And it is reform that we’re talking about, not elimination of TIF, as some fear. Reform is the case I have made in a recent report for the Iowa Fiscal Partnership about TIF use in Johnson County, and in a public presentation on that issue recently in Coralville.

Another public TIF reform meeting is scheduled Saturday, Jan. 21, from 10 a.m. to 11:30 a.m. at the Johnson County Health and Human Services Building, 855 S. Dubuque St. Iowa City, conference rooms 202B and 202C, second floor. There is public parking on the north side of the building; enter through NW door near the flagpole.

For reform to be meaningful, we need to do more than tinker around the edges with TIF. Fundamental issues need to be understood and addressed.

Let’s start by recognizing that providing subsidies (some say “incentives”) for retail development is simply bad public policy. They are either unnecessary or counterproductive. Retail development occurs when the market for retail justifies it; potential sales are all the incentive that is needed, and that is driven by location. A subsidy, provided through TIF or another means, is really a giveaway of taxpayers’ dollars.

Next, providing infrastructure to accommodate growth is what cities do. They should not need schools and counties to help in most cases. Many city projects are appropriately financed by issuing bonds, repaid by the city’s taxpayers.

Third, once a TIF project is paid off, cities still may have the district in place and often can find a way to keep diverting property taxes from the school district and county. This can be millions of dollars. A sensible law would require the TIF to end with the completion of a project, so that schools and counties are not denied their share of the increased value created in the TIF district.

Beyond those fundamental problems, TIF law in Iowa permits:

• Piracy of businesses from one community to another, even next-door neighbors, as Coralville is doing with over $18 million in breaks to encourage Von Maur to move from Iowa City.

• A shift of responsibility from residents to nonresidents to pay the taxes needed to provide city services.

• A city to cause residents of one school district subsidize tax-base improvements in another.

TIF reform may take many forms in this legislative session, but no TIF reform package will be sufficient unless it firmly deals with the issues noted above.

Posted by Peter S. Fisher, Research Director

Note: A related guest opinion from Fisher is in the January 19, 2012, Iowa City Press-Citizen.

The need for TIF reform

Economic development types have become addicted to the idea that they can use TIF to do many things without regard to the impacts on neighbors or even the real purpose of TIF.

Peter Fisher speaks at TIF forum
IPP Research Director Peter Fisher speaks at a forum on tax-increment financing as Sen. Joe Bolkcom, D-Iowa City, and Rep. Tom Sands, R-Wapello, look on.

Peter Fisher’s report for the Iowa Fiscal Partnership about the use of tax-increment financing (TIF) painted a picture of a program that has become a monster. I encourage all to find the report on our website, or to view the forum in Coralville hosted by the bipartisan team of Sen. Joe Bolkcom, D-Iowa City, and Rep. Tom Sands, R-Wapello.

It takes some folks out of their comfort zone — apparently former Iowa City Council Member Bob Elliott among them in today’s Iowa City Press-Citizen — to see what an otherwise well-intentioned and potentially valuable tool has become due to lax state law. Cities across Iowa have shown an inability to handle the responsibility that goes with the permission to divert other jurisdictions’ tax revenues with TIF. Such projects that are supposed to benefit all whose revenues are being used. Unfortunately, it frequently does not work that way.

The report offers several ideas for reform to rein in abuses; it does not call for elimination of TIF, but for regulation. Perhaps Mr. Elliott missed that, as he states, “For me, an appropriate analogy to the TIF situation would be medical drugs, which can provide great benefit or be dangerously abused. In situations like that, you don’t eliminate it, you regulate against misuse and retain the capacity for beneficial use.” Agreed.

Indeed, the drug analogy is appropriate. Economic development types have become addicted to the idea that they can use TIF to do many things without regard to the impacts on neighbors or even the real purpose of TIF. Fisher’s report offers examples from Johnson County — notably Coralville’s use of property-tax dollars from one school district to create new property-tax base in another, in a project that effectively lured a major department store from Iowa City next door.

If state lawmakers ignore such examples, they will be repeated — in fact, it would give cities tacit approval to consider these practices appropriate. Take that, Clear Creek-Amana school district. Take that, Iowa City.

Fisher’s report is a wonderful example of how a nonpartisan organization that is focused wholly on issues, and not partisan politics, can help people of any political stripe to understand those issues. Iowans use our work and contribute to it because they know they can count on IPP to provide fact-based analysis and relevant research that holds the political spinners accountable. And yes, contributions to our work are welcome. Click here.

Posted by Mike Owen, Assistant Director

TIF public forum draws out facts, and people

Sen. Joe Bolkcom, D-Iowa City, and Rep. Tom Sands, R-Wapello, hosted the Coralville forum about an issue growing in attention following the release of Peter Fisher’s report for the Iowa Fiscal Partnership.


The room was packed, but now more people will be able to view the January 4 public forum in Coralville about tax-increment financing.

City Channel 4 — Iowa City Cable TV — will show the forum, which features a presentation by Iowa Policy Project Research Director Peter Fisher and comments by Iowa lawmakers and local officials. Fisher’s recent report, Tax-Increment Financing: A Case Study of Johnson County, was the focus of commentary throughout the hearing.

Hosted by State Sen. Joe Bolkcom, D-Iowa City, and State Rep. Tom Sands, R-Wapello, the forum has drawn much attention including media coverage by The Gazette in Cedar Rapids and The Press-Citizen in Iowa City.

The Iowa City cable presentation of the forum will be shown six times in the coming week, beginning at midnight today. The program runs 1 hour, 49 minutes. Here is the full schedule, also found on the Channel 4 website:

Saturday, January 07, at 12:00 a.m.
Saturday, January 07, at 9:30 p.m.
Monday, January 09, at 8:00 a.m.
Tuesday, January 10, at 5:30 a.m.
Wednesday, January 11, at 4:00 p.m.
Thursday, January 12, at 1:30 p.m.

To view slides that Fisher used in his presentation, click here.

It’s not theater: ‘The Pirates of River Landing’

Total up-front project cost: $16 million to $17 million plus infrastructure. The city’s share: at least 75 percent. In the economic development world, that is an astounding fraction. That’s even larger than Iowa’s scandal ridden film tax credit.

Peter Fisher
Peter Fisher

The Coralville City Council recently approved an astounding incentive package to entice Von Maur from Iowa City’s Sycamore Mall to Coralville’s Iowa River Landing project. The city has agreed to build a $9.5 million store for Von Maur. It doesn’t matter how well your store is doing; if someone offers you free rent in perpetuity, that gets your attention.

But the $9.5 million is only half the story. The city also agreed to:

  • give Von Maur the $1.5 million building site for $10,
  • pay $650,000 to buy out the company’s lease at Sycamore Mall,
  • pay all of Von Maur’s expenses of moving from the mall to Coralville, and
  • pay all of the cost of constructing necessary streets, sidewalks, parking lots, landscaping, street lighting, water, sewer and storm sewers associated with or needed by the store.

And that’s still not the end. This was a TIF deal, where the rationale is that you are creating tax base, in the long run.

Well, guess what happens to most of the tax revenue — the city rebates it to Von Maur, with no ending date, because this TIF is in a “blighted area,” which means the TIF goes on forever.

So I guess the day after perpetuity, the schools and the county will start collecting all the taxes normally due them from this project.

The property tax deal caps Von Maur’s liability for property taxes at $150,000 per year (inflated each year by the consumer price index or 2 percent, whichever is less). If you take the building cost and add the land value you get $11 million. Then throw in another $1.0 to $1.5 million for the value of interior improvements made by Von Maur that count as part of the real estate, and you get a taxable value of about $12.2 million. At the current total property tax rate in that area of $36.57 per thousand, that is about $450,000 per year for a total property tax bill.

Under the agreement, Von Maur pays only $150,000, the city pays the remaining $300,000. There is no time limit on the cap. But if we assume that the store will have an economic life of 20 years, we can calculate the present value equivalent of giving them $300,000 a year. It’s about $4.5 million (using a 3 percent discount rate). You could argue about the time frame, or the discount rate, or about how much faster property taxes will go up than the 2 percent limit on the cap (which means the rebate amount will increase).

But you will in the end come to the conclusion that the tax cap is worth a lot — $4 million to $5 million. That is, giving Von Maur $4 million to $5 million up front would be worth about the same as giving the company $300,000 a year for 20 years. That means the total incentive package is worth at least $16 million (9.5 + 1.5 + .65 + 4.5). “At least,” because that figure doesn’t include all of the city infrastructure costs, which will be substantial, or the moving costs. Von Maur, meanwhile, has to come up with just the cost of finishing the interior space to its specifications, an expense that is likely to be in the $3.5 to $4.5 million range, plus $150,000 in property taxes each year, and its share of maintaining the common property (mostly parking lots).

Total up-front project cost: $16 million to $17 million plus infrastructure. The city’s share: at least 75 percent. In the economic development world, that is an astounding fraction. That’s even larger than Iowa’s scandal-ridden film tax credit, which briefly promised “half-price filmmaking” before the program was shut down. In addition to covering three-fourths of the up-front costs, the city will pay two-thirds of the annual property tax bill.

Coralville Council members — perhaps soon to be known as the Pirates of River Landing — apparently think this is a wise use of taxpayer funds. We can hope that the taxpayers of Coralville have a more sensible view of the world.

Posted by Peter S. Fisher, Research Director