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Monday, July 28, 2014

Sedgwick County plans to hold hearing on proposed Southfork tax district

By Deb Gruver
The Wichita Eagle

Sedgwick County commissioners will give the public another chance to sound off on a tax-increment financing district for a south-side development.

The decision comes after a heated discussion in which one commissioner told another his analysis of the project was “terribly flawed.”

Commissioners’ philosophical differences about economic development were clear Tuesday morning as they talked about whether to hold a public hearing next week on the Southfork project, a proposed mixed-use development near 47th Street South and I-135.

Three of five commissioners — Tim Norton, Jim Skelton and Dave Unruh — said they support the district and didn’t think it was necessary to put the project on the board’s May 9 meeting agenda. But Commissioners Karl Peterjohn and Richard Ranzau said it would be a mistake to not let the public speak for or against it.

Later Tuesday, County Manager William Buchanan said the commission would have a public hearing about the district because “we’ve had a number of people call who want to speak” about it.

The city already approved the TIF district, which diverts future taxes to help pay for improvements. Because such financing affects county and school district tax collections, those entities have 30 days to challenge it, as the county did earlier this year.

Commissioners Peterjohn, Ranzau and Unruh voted in January that the TIF district would have an adverse effect on the county. The city withdrew the district, but Developer Jay Maxwell then came back with a second plan that asked for less public financing and sought to address other concerns.

Unruh said Tuesday he would not oppose the retooled district, tilting the majority. He added there was great benefit — and no risk — to the public to proceed.

In response, Ranzau told Unruh, “Your analysis of this is terribly flawed.”

Ranzau said it would be more appropriate to create a community improvement district, or CID, which would allow a special sales tax to be collected, for the project. Maxwell’s initial proposal included a CID as well as a tax-increment financing district.

The first proposal requested $20.5 million in public funding. The revised proposal asked for almost $9.9 million in public funding.

Ranzau said he interprets that to mean the project never needed that much in public funding.

“Obviously when they told us they needed $20.5 million, it wasn’t completely true,” he said. “How do we even know he needs the $9.9 million?”

Commissioner Jim Skelton, who represents southeast Wichita, said he understood that he and Ranzau had different viewpoints.

“I think this is going to be a boon for the south side,” Skelton said, adding that residents of the area “definitely want this project.”

The nearly $55 million project would include retail, hotel, restaurants and office space on 50 acres, along with a medical complex on the 22 acres west of the Riverside Drainage Canal.

One change that swayed Unruh was that the project no longer would be in a flood plain thanks to a $1 million project to elevate the land to take it out of the flood plain.

But Ranzau argued that if the project was no longer in a flood plain, it didn’t need the county’s help.

Ranzau said Tuesday morning that the county should have put the project on the commission agenda so the public could speak for or against it.

“Regardless of one’s position on this particular TIF or TIFs in general, silencing the opposition is wrong and must not be tolerated,” he said.

Buchanan said later it became clear throughout the day that a public hearing made sense.

The hearing will be during the commission’s regular weekly meeting at 9 a.m. May 9.

Reach Deb Gruver at 316-268-6400 or dgruver@wichitaeagle.com.

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