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Election could shift power on Wichita City Council

Last week's primary election showed that Wichitans — or at least a large portion of the fraction who voted — support candidates who pledge to rein in the city's use of economic incentives and limit its spending on downtown revitalization.

If those candidates prevail, it could make it harder for businesses to get tax subsidies, call into question the city's future spending on downtown redevelopment and break up the mostly congenial atmosphere the current City Council developed.

Typically, the potential for a big power shift is unlikely because voters elect four positions at the most and an incumbent often retains a spot.

But this year five positions are in the hands of voters — mayor and Districts 2, 3, 4 and 5.

Each race features candidates who say they'd fiercely question using public money to help private developers — even if that money is paid back over time through the jobs created and new property and sales taxes.

For example, several candidates are critical of or outright oppose the use of tax incremental financing — a tool that typically diverts new property taxes from small, defined areas toward things like land acquisition for developers and improvements that add streets and sidewalks near new developments.

In east Wichita's District 2, candidate Charlie Stevens, a real estate investor, has taken a stand against TIF districts in most circumstances.

"By using TIFs to spur development in politically favored areas we are neglecting other areas of our city and causing their growth to stifle," he said in response to The Eagle's questions last month. He couldn't be reached for this story.

His opponent, Pete Meitzner, chairman of the board of the Lord's Diner and partner at a consulting firm, said he would carefully vet any TIF district proposals. But he said he sees examples of how they can work — including Old Town, where development was spurred by two TIF districts.

He questions anyone who thinks TIFs are simply bad.

"If you had that kind of emotion or attitude about the city or government being involved, would we still have Hawker Beechcraft today? Would we have low (airfares)? Would we have small and mid-sized companies that choose to locate here?" he asked.

Michael O'Donnell, a radio sales and marketing representative running for southwest Wichita's fourth district, said residents are fed up with government involvement.

"We have an unlevel playing field because some businesses get incentives and others don't," he said.

Joshua Blick, a financial aid officer and part owner of a computer and gaming business, has similar dislike for the incentive.

With local government strapped for cash in a down economy, it's important that all property taxes flow to services for everyone, he said.

"We're diverting taxes away from the city, the county and the school board for 20 years," he said. "And we never know what's going to happen with our economy."

Lynda Tyler, a tea party activist running for west Wichita's fifth district, said business people who support her want an end to many incentive programs.

"They're saying 'we don't want the government giving loans to our competitors and we don't want you to give loans to us,' " she said.

She said she and other like-minded candidates will challenge proposals in City Hall more than the current City Council has.

"We're going to be looking for true accountability and consistency in details," she said. "We're going to be using our calculators."

Jeff Longwell, the incumbent, argues that he has been asking tough questions since he was elected.

For example, he said the city privatized the mowing of parks and rights of way to save more than $1 million and has used furloughs, layoffs and department mergers to cut spending during tough times.

He thinks the city has used its incentives wisely.

"At the end of the day, it's all about return on investment," he said. "We've made that emphatically clear with our policy decisions lately."

Downtown

Mayor Carl Brewer has made downtown revitalization a priority.

But the attention to the city's core has also drawn sharp criticism from those who say the city's spending downtown means fewer dollars to maintain what surrounds it.

In southeast Wichita's third district, infrastructure has become a key issue.

The district is home to miles of unpaved roads and the South Broadway bridge that fell into such disrepair that the city had to abruptly close it in 2007.

James Clendenin, a machinist who ran for a state House seat last year, said many people he has talked to feel like the bridge wouldn't have been a problem if City Hall had paid it the type of attention that other parts of the city get.

He hasn't shut the door to using incentives, but he said he would question everything.

"It's never a bad thing to ask a question," he said. "When you ask questions, sometimes people get a little irritated, and they don't always want those questions asked."

Some disagreement is OK, he said.

"If there's infighting within the council, it may just be different opinions," Clendenin said. "If everyone is thinking alike, maybe they're not thinking."

Mark Gietzen, an anti-abortion activist running for the District 4 seat, has said he opposes any direct investment in downtown development.

And he has strongly opposed most incentives.

"TIFs are actually just welfare payments to private developers, and the voters never see the real cost," he wrote in response to The Eagle's questions. "TIFs are more expensive than any other form of financing that I know of, and therefore, I oppose them. Period."

He couldn't be reached for comment on this story.

Mayoral candidate Darrell Leffew, owner of Meridian Construction, has opposed many of the incentives and projects that Brewer, the incumbent and former District 1 council member, has supported.

Leffew said he thinks April's election could lead to huge changes if limited-government candidates win.

That may be one of the few things that he and Brewer agree on.

"It could significantly change the direction of the city," Brewer said.

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