Giving Away the Store to Get a Store

Tax increment financing is no bargain for taxpayers.

If you're imagining an attraction that will draw 4.5 million out-of-town visitors a year, the first thing that jumps to mind probably isn't a store that sells guns and fishing rods and those brown jackets President Bush wears to clear brush at his ranch in Crawford, Texas. Yet last year Cabela's, a Nebraska-based hunting and fishing mega-store chain with annual sales of $1.7 billion, persuaded the politicians of Fort Worth that bringing the chain to an affluent and growing area north of the city was worth $30 million to $40 million in tax breaks. They were told that the store, the centerpiece of a new retail area, would draw more tourists than the Alamo in San Antonio or the annual State Fair of Texas in Dallas, both of which attract 2.5 million visitors a year.

The decision was made easier by the financing plan that Fort Worth will use to accommodate Cabela's. The site of the Fort Worth Cabela's has been designated a tax increment financing (TIF) district, which means taxes on the property will be frozen for 20 to 30 years.

Largely because it promises something for nothing--an economic stimulus in exchange for tax revenue that otherwise would not materialize--this tool is becoming increasingly popular across the country. Originally used to help revive blighted or depressed areas, TIFs now appear in affluent neighborhoods, subsidizing high-end housing developments, big-box retailers, and shopping malls. And since most cities are using TIFs, businesses such as Cabela's can play them off against each other to boost the handouts they receive simply to operate profit-making enterprises.

A Crummy Way to Treat Taxpaying Citizens

TIFs have been around for more than 50 years, but only recently have they assumed such importance. At a time when local governments' efforts to foster development, from direct subsidies to the use of eminent domain to seize property for private development, are already out of control, TIFs only add to the problem: Although politicians portray TIFs as a great way to boost the local economy, there are hidden costs they don't want taxpayers to know about. Cities generally assume they are not really giving anything up because the forgone tax revenue would not have been available in the absence of the development generated by the TIF. That assumption is often wrong.

"There is always this expectation with TIFs that the economic growth is a way to create jobs and grow the economy, but then push the costs across the public spectrum," says Greg LeRoy, author of The Great American Jobs Scam: Corporate Tax Dodging and the Myth of Job Creation. "But what is missing here is that the cost of developing private business has some public costs. Road and sewers and schools are public costs that come from growth." Unless spending is cut--and if a TIF really does generate economic growth, spending is likely to rise, as the local population grows--the burden of paying for these services will be shifted to other taxpayers. Adding insult to injury, those taxpayers may include small businesses facing competition from well-connected chains that enjoy TIF-related tax breaks. In effect, a TIF subsidizes big businesses at the expense of less politically influential competitors and ordinary citizens.

"The original concept of TIFs was to help blighted areas come out of the doldrums and get some economic development they wouldn't [otherwise] have a chance of getting," says former Fort Worth City Councilman Clyde Picht, who voted against the Cabela's TIF. "Everyone probably gets a big laugh out of their claim that they will draw more tourists than the Alamo. But what is worse, and not talked about too much, is the shift of taxes being paid from wealthy corporations to small businesses and regular people.

"If you own a mom-and-pop store that sells fishing rods and hunting gear in Fort Worth, you're still paying all your taxes, and the city is giving tax breaks to Cabela's that could put you out of business," Picht explains. "The rest of us pay taxes for normal services like public safety, building inspections, and street maintenance, and those services come out of the general fund. And as the cost of services goes up, and the money from the general fund is given to these businesses through a TIF, the tax burden gets shifted to the regular slobs who don't have the same political clout. It's a crummy way to treat your taxpaying, law-abiding citizens."

Almost every state has a TIF law, and the details vary from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. But most TIFs share the same general characteristics. After a local government has designated a TIF district, property taxes (and sometimes sales taxes) from the area are divided into two streams. The first tax stream is based on the original assessed value of the property before any redevelopment; the city, county, school district, or other taxing body still gets that money. The second stream is the additional tax money generated after development takes place and the property values are higher. Typically that revenue is used to pay off municipal bonds that raise money for infrastructure improvements in the TIF district, for land acquisition through eminent domain, or for direct payments to a private developer for site preparation and construction. The length of time the taxes are diverted to pay for the bonds can be anywhere from seven to 30 years.

Local governments sell the TIF concept to the public by claiming they are using funds that would not have been generated without the TIF district. If the land was valued at $10 million before TIF-associated development and is worth $50 million afterward, the argument goes, the $40 million increase in tax value can be used to retire the bonds. Local governments also like to point out that the TIF district may increase nearby economic activity, which will be taxed at full value.

So, in the case of Cabela's in Fort Worth, the TIF district was created to build roads and sewers and water systems, to move streams and a lake to make the property habitable, and to help defray construction costs for the company. Cabela's likes this deal because the money comes upfront, without any interest. Their taxes are frozen, and the bonds are paid off by what would have gone into city coffers. In effect, the city is trading future tax income for a present benefit.

But even if the dedicated tax money from a TIF district suffices to pay off the bonds, that doesn't mean the arrangement is cost-free. "TIFs are being pushed out there right now based upon the 'but for' test," says Greg LeRoy. "What cities are saying is that no development would take place but for the TIF....The average public official says this is free money, because it wouldn't happen otherwise. But when you see how it plays out, the whole premise of TIFs begins to crumble." Rather than spurring development, LeRoy argues, TIFs "move some economic development from one part of a city to another."

Development Would Have Occurred Anyway

Local officials usually do not consider how much growth might occur without a TIF. In 2002 the Neighborhood Capital Budget Group (NCBG), a coalition of 200 Chicago organizations that studies local public investment, looked at 36 of the city's TIF districts and found that property values were rising in all of them during the five years before they were designated as TIFs. The NCBG projected that the city of Chicago would capture $1.6 billion in second-stream property tax revenue--used to pay off the bonds that subsidized private businesses--over the 23-year life spans of these TIF districts. But it also found that $1.3 billion of that revenue would have been raised anyway, assuming the areas continued growing at their pre-TIF rates.

The experience in Chicago is important. The city invested $1.6 billion in TIFs, even though $1.3 billion in economic development would have occurred anyway. So the bottom line is that the city invested $1.6 billion for $300 million in revenue growth.

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