County may try to block Save-A-Lot

Some Sedgwick County commissioners hinted Tuesday they may try to halt a plan to finance a grocery store in Planeview using money from future property taxes.

The plan, tentatively approved by the Wichita City Council on Sept. 14 and up for final approval Nov. 2, would place a Save-A-Lot store at George Washington Boulevard and Pawnee.

However, at the commission's weekly staff meeting Tuesday, Chairman Karl Peterjohn raised the question of whether the county should oppose the tax-increment financing — or TIF — district that would fund improvements to streets, parking and other public amenities around the store site.

The TIF district would use the increased property taxes from the store and an accompanying planned strip shopping center to help pay for the project instead of sending the taxes to the city, county, Wichita school district and state. Any of the entities can object to and stop the plan.

The council also has approved a plan to provide more public money to build the project by allowing the developers to charge an extra 2 percent sales tax on sales at the grocery store for 22 years.

Peterjohn said he's concerned that taxpayers countywide would be affected if the TIF district is approved.

"I've had concerns about TIFs going back to when I was elected in 2008," Peterjohn said.

The Planeview TIF will be the first time that Peterjohn, the former president of the Kansas Taxpayers Network, has the opportunity to vote on a TIF district.

Commissioner Gwen Welshimer, ordinarily an opponent of TIF financing, said she thinks it's warranted in Planeview, which is one of the poorest sections of Wichita. She said the purpose of TIF districts is to relieve urban blight, but in Wichita, the planning tool has mostly been used to assist development of downtown and the WaterWalk.

"I think TIFs were designed for places like Planeview, not wealthy property owners downtown," Welshimer said. "Unfortunately, that's not the way things have worked out."

She said it is very difficult for many Planeview residents who don't have cars to get to the nearest full-service grocery store, a Checkers market more than a mile away, near Pawnee and Southeast Boulevard.

Commissioner Kelly Parks said he had received some objections to the TIF district from the owners of Checkers, which also owns Leeker's markets in his north-county district. Checkers-Leeker's owners opposed the Save-A-Lot proposal at the city hearing, saying that the public money would give the new market an unfair competitive advantage.

Welshimer said the loss of the grocery store project would be a major blow to a community that in recent years has lost many of its amenities, including a dental clinic, senior center, polling place and Lions Club.

"I've been working to provide resources and upgrade the standard of living there for 21 years," said Welshimer, who represented the area in the state House before becoming a county commissioner. "I have my doubts that it (the grocery store project) will happen — and it is sad."

Her opponent for re-election, City Council member Jim Skelton, also favors the grocery store development.

Three of the five commissioners would have to object to the taxing district to halt the plan. Of the other two commissioners, Dave Unruh did not indicate a position and Tim Norton did not attend the meeting.

The county has about two weeks to block the TIF district. State law allows any of the governments that would contribute tax revenue to halt the plan by filing a formal objection within 30 days of the initial public hearing.

Because the first hearing occurred at the Sept. 14 City Council meeting, the county has until Oct. 13 to object, said County Manager William Buchanan.

If the county, state and school district take no action, the TIF district is deemed to be approved by those agencies.

If the county does object, that would stop the TIF district from being formed, Buchanan said.

The city would then have the option to restart and try again, reworking the TIF district to exclude the county from participation, he said.