Giving Away the Store to Get a Store: Tax Increment Financing Is No Bargain for Taxpayers

Article excerpt

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 FortWorth 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 FortWorth 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. …