After years of complaints about their tax money going to downtown development, south Wichita flexed some political muscle in Tuesday’s special election on subsidizing a downtown boutique hotel.
In the referendum vote on whether a developer could keep a share of his hotel’s guest tax, the two southern City Council districts responded with the most resounding “no” votes in the city.
Overall, the measure lost 61 to 38 percent citywide.
In the southwest District 4, three out of four voters said “no” on the referendum, handing the proposition a 1,730-vote drubbing.
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The neighboring southeast District 3 wasn’t far behind, with almost seven out of 10 voters saying “no,” contributing 1,032 votes to the proposition’s defeat.
The “yes” side on the hotel tax subsidy lost every council district in the city.
The closest it came to winning was in District 2, east Wichita, where the “no” side prevailed by only 363 votes, a comparatively narrow margin of 53-47 percent.
Ken Ciboski, a professor of political science at Wichita State University, said the overwhelming “no” vote in south Wichita could be the result of that part of the community feeling neglected in the city’s economic development effort.
For years, residents south of Kellogg have complained about – but lacked the votes on the council to do anything about – tens of millions of dollars in public redevelopment money flowing to downtown projects but little going south of Kellogg.
“Very definitely the south has felt slighted,” Ciboski said. “I think they feel like they’re left out of the loop in the political arena.
“There’s probably a little bit of an economic dividing line here too,” Ciboski added. “Maybe some of these people have kind of a chip on their shoulder.”
Ciboski also noted a large difference between the two more economically advantaged suburban districts, the east District 2 and west District 5.
“It may be the people in west Wichita, they just don’t feel connected with downtown as much,” he said.
District 4 council member Michael O’Donnell said he was heartened to see the large opposition to the hotel incentive plan on the southwest side.
O’Donnell has been the odd man out on the council, finding himself on the short end of several 6-1 votes on city spending and the only council member to oppose the subsidy for the hotel.
He said the vote Tuesday shows that he’s doing what people in his district want him to do.
“I’m following the will of my constituents,” he said. “According to the (citywide) result, I am following the will of all the voters.”
The hotel tax incentive was forced onto the ballot by a petition drive led by Americans for Prosperity, a low-tax advocacy group.
The hotel’s $2.25 millon guest tax rebate -- done by a charter ordinance -- was the only part of the subsidy package that they could legally challenge at the ballot box.
O’Donnell said he thinks the rest of the deal would also have proved unpopular if put to a vote.
“I think they (voters) are just tired of the ever-expanding handouts,” O’Donnell said. “They’re just tired of government at every level growing bigger and taxing more and not listening.”
Mayor Carl Brewer, the leading advocate for the city’s involvement in downtown development, did not return a message seeking comment.
But council member Pete Meitzner, who represents the area that was the least opposed to the ballot measure, said he thinks the vote was a more generalized message that stems from a lack of spending discipline at the federal level.
“My personal thinking is it was a chance for a lot of people to say enough is enough,” Meitzner said. “Message is heard and respected.”
However, he said it would be unwise for the city to turn away from helping businesses develop in the community.
Meitzner said the city doesn’t get credit for the projects it decides not to fund, because subpar plans don’t make it to the public agenda
“Many of the applications for what you’d call assistance or incentives, many of those don’t see the light of day,” Meizner said. “There’s an assumption that everything that comes to us is just whitewashed through. I can tell you from the 10 months I’ve been in office that’s not the truth.”
He said the council recognizes the need to keep debt under control and that development done purely with private-sector money is “the best thing in the world.”
“But if it needs public help to grow the economy, everybody wins,” he added. “Let’s do everything we can to grow the economy.”