Helzberg project in Crossroads is Exhibit A for why the TIF process is dysfunctional

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It’s too bad that Tuesday’s special meeting of the Tax Increment Financing Commission of Kansas City wasn’t broadcast on television.

It was a disastrously run meeting. TIF Commission chairwoman Cindy Circo called the meeting to order, then promptly called for a vote without discussion. The vote was whether the TIF Commission should rescind a decision it made in November to delay a development agreement between it and Shirley Helzberg, the philanthropist who wants $5 million in public subsidy to help fund a new $13 million office for BNIM in the Crossroads.

The vote was halfway complete before Kevin Masters, a Kansas City Public Schools representative on the TIF Commission, stopped the roll call and asked if they would even get to discuss what they were voting on. Circo indicated that a discussion would happen later on in the meeting. But what good does a discussion do after a vote is taken? Perhaps realizing this, the commission decided to halt the vote and talk about what they were doing.

On the TIF Commission, discussions are worth about as much as wooden nickels. The 11-member body, which evaluates TIF plans and makes recommendations to the Kansas City, Missouri, City Council, is populated by six mayoral appointees, giving the city a baked-in advantage on just about any vote. Couple that imbalance with the fact that Mayor Sly James pulled one of his appointees off the commission last month after that commissioner voted to delay a development agreement for the Helzberg project until January, it was easy for all in attendance to see how Tuesday’s meeting would play out.

A discussion took place, which split along entirely predictable lines. Taxing jurisdictions such as KCPS, Jackson County and the Kansas City Public Library roiled at having a special meeting called to un-do what they did a month ago, not to mention their general unhappiness with the TIF process. City appointees countered that a debate about economic-development policy might make sense, but that Tuesday wasn’t the day for it.

Circo called again for a vote, but was reminded by a library appointee that there were members of the public who might want to testify. Circo called for the vote anyway, saying the public could speak up before the next vote. So the TIF Commission voted 6-5 to rescind the November vote to delay the development agreement until next week. The six yes votes were city appointments, the five no votes came from taxing jurisdictions. At that point, representatives from Jackson County and the Kansas City Public Library stood up and walked out of the meeting, perhaps seeing the proceedings as a waste of their time. They would have been outflanked on the next vote on whether to approve the development agreement.

This is how TIF, one of the most powerful and often-used public subsidies, gets vetted in Kansas City.

Jolie Justus, a first-term councilwoman from Kansas City’s 4th District, stood up and explained that while she supported Helzberg’s project, she didn’t much care for the process for getting it approved.

Justus was an effective Missouri senator in Jefferson City, a Democrat who managed to broker agreements on key issues with an at-times recalcitrant Republican-dominated Missouri General Assembly.

Perhaps she can have some success in reforming TIF in Kansas City. The Helzberg TIF has exposed an uneven playing field with how the subsidy is used. An overwhelming majority of TIFs occur in places in Kansas City where economic development is subsidized over and over again, while destitute tracts get overlooked time after time.

The TIF process is dominated by developers and their attorneys, who dominate campaign contributions to elected officials. 

Citizens who protest against subsidized projects through the petition initiative or referendum process face long odds against City Hall, which evaluates the petitions. Is it any surprise that City Hall would look to turn back a referendum, as it is currently doing with KCPS parent Jennifer Wolfsie’s referendum against the Helzberg TIF, when its elected leadership is composed of the same people who approved the project?

Not every TIF is bad. And Shirley Helzberg isn’t necessarily wrong to apply for it. And BNIM isn’t wrong for wanting to move into what should be a cool new headquarters building in a cool part of town. Helzberg and BNIM aren’t the reasons that the TIF process is dysfunctional. But the project exposes the reasons that it is.

There should be a better process for evaluating these things. Whether a discussion about getting there actually takes place is anyone’s guess.

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