Wichita voters will get to decide Feb 28 on whether to tap the city bed tax to help finance a boutique hotel downtown.
Forced by a successful petition drive, the City Council voted 6-1 to put that subsidy before voters and hold the election at the end of February.
Most council members — including lone dissenter Lavonta Williams — indicated they wanted the vote to be held sooner rather than later, because they think an extended campaign will create community discord that will slow development downtown and elsewhere.
“I have a concern about dragging this out,” said council member Janet Miller, whose district abuts the hotel site. “I’d just as soon get it over with as soon as we can, so we can move on.”
At stake is an estimated $2.25 million subsidy for the planned Ambassador Hotel, a 117-room, $22.5 million hotel planned for the former Union National Bank building at Douglas and Broadway.
The vote to set the election date on the subsidy came after an unusual meeting Tuesday.
Members halted debate on the issue until they could bring Sedgwick County Election Commissioner Tabitha Lehman over to City Hall to grill her on why the next to the last day of February is the first day the election could be held.
Lehman, new to the job, told the council that the time was needed to avoid errors and to mail ballots to military voters overseas and in other states.
Lehman said it would be “ill advised” to try to hold the election sooner, because she has to arrange for 40 polling places, hire election workers and work with the software vendors to program voting machines for the election.
It will also be the city’s first election since the state passed its voter-ID law, which could cause confusion if voters aren’t adequately notified that they’ll need to bring their identification with them to the polls, Lehman said.
The referendum election will cost $50,000, paid by the hotel’s developers. One of them, prominent downtown developer David Burk, told the council he would like to see the election held sooner and would be willing to pay extra if that could be arranged.
The only way the council could have headed off the rare public vote would have been to repeal the subsidy – an option that had little support on the council.
To fund the subsidy, the council had approved rebating the developers 75 percent of the occupancy tax to be paid by the hotel’s guests for 15 years.
The subsidy was forced to a public election by a petition drive, led by Americans for Prosperity, a group organized around free-market economic theories advocated by Koch Industries owners Charles and David Koch.
Although they frequently address the council in opposition to publicly funded development incentives, members sat quietly in the audience during Tuesday’s meeting.
The petitioners gathered 2,719 signatures of verified Wichita voters to force the election, slightly more than the 2,527 signatures they needed.
The hotel tax package is part of a $30 million bonding and incentives plan for Douglas Place — including a publicly funded $7.5 million parking structure to serve the hotel and other businesses expected to develop nearby.
Most of the subsidy package could not be overturned by petition. Under state law, opponents could only force a referendum on the diversion of the hotel guest tax, because that was passed by the council as a charter ordinance.
John Todd, one of the leaders of the petition drive, said he thinks the council majority members wanted a quicker vote because they think it’s their best chance to win.
He said the group fighting the subsidy has depleted its resources on the petition drive and has not begun serious fundraising for the election itself.
Todd also criticized the council for trying to limit the time for community discussion of the ballot issue.
“Discourse and debate is a natural part of our system of government,” he said.