Crime & Courts

Century II activist wants a better explanation for tax district expansion

In its first meeting after a contentious election, the Wichita City Council is being asked to approve millions of dollars in improvements and incentives for some of the mayor’s signature projects.

One community activist says the city should slow down and is accusing the council of trying to push through controversial decisions during Wichita Mayor Jeff Longwell’s final two months in office.

The city’s proposing expanding a tax district west of the new baseball stadium, approving more than $100 million dollars in Industrial Revenue Bonds and signing a complicated development agreement for four downtown buildings that includes up to 500 city-owned parking spaces. The buildings are part of a new education complex that will include a medical school, a culinary arts school, hotel and student housing. About $90 million of the Industrial Revenue Bonds would support that education complex known as the Kansas Health Science Center.

The ballpark and the science center have been two of Longwell’s major initiatives.

The City Council will weigh decisions on each of those items Tuesday. Council members said Friday that the items are needed for economic development.

One of the items that’s come under the most scrutiny is an expanded tax district meant to bolster development around the new ballpark.

“Longwell needs to stop making deals,” said Celeste Bogart Racette, head of the Save Century 2 group that’s organizing to push back in case there are proposals to tear down the historic building.

The Eagle called Racette after one of her Facebook posts became the topic of discussion at the council’s weekly agenda review.

Racette posted on the “Save Century II” group’s website Friday morning, when City Council agendas post online, about a city plan to expand its Tax Increment Financing, or TIF, district west of the new ballpark. She called it “a land grab” by Longwell and questioned why it has a first reading this Tuesday and a deadline for final action on Dec. 17, before he leaves office in January.

The new district boundaries would include land bought by a developer well ahead of the construction of the new stadium that’s being floated as a potential site for stadium parking.

City Manager Bob Layton said the city needs to expand the district to pay for streets, parking and green space around the ballpark. It would require a majority of the council’s final approval on December 17.

Racette called the timing of the land purchase by the developer — who started buying parcels west of the stadium in January 2018 — and the rush to approve the district boundaries “suspicious.”

The ballpark is scheduled to open in the spring, and decisions on parking and development around it have been fraught with public discord.

Racette said she saw the election of Brandon Whipple, who campaigned on increased transparency, as a clear message that the public isn’t happy with the city’s handling of recent major decisions.

“Mayor Longwell is going for a land grab west of the ballpark and we have to STOP HIM,” she wrote on Facebook. “Everyone PLEASE pull up the agenda for city council. ... Look at the map and the grid outline for the proposed additional land. Why is the area being expanded around the ballpark?????? He wants this done by December 17!!!”

At the city’s weekly agenda review, Longwell was silent on Racette’s post and could not be reached for comment after the agenda review. But council members directed Layton to do something about it.

“There is a group online that is saying that it’s a land grab,” Council member James Clendenin said. “And so we’re going to need to fight some misperceptions about what this really is. This is an investment in the community.”

Layton told Clendenin that city staff would make clear in its Tuesday presentation that the expansion has been blessed by the Delano Neighborhood Association in its master plan.

That wasn’t soon enough for Council member Bryan Frye.

“Do we have someone from communications that can address it now, rather than let the social media stuff continue for three or four days?” Frye said.

“Just go to the Save Century 2 Facebook site, and you’ll see what’s being said,” Clendenin added.

“We’ll get something out today,” Layton said.

A TIF district is a special tax district that captures increases in property taxes and applies it to eligible costs. The tax funds at the proposed district near the ballpark would be used to finance “improvements related to the stadium, parking, streetscapes and greenway path,” according to a city staff report.

Besides the two block area to Oak Street south of Texas Avenue directly west of the stadium, the expanded district would capture increased property taxes in sections west of McLean Boulevard to Vine Avenue, north to Kiowa Street and south to Kellogg.

On Facebook, the city explained to Racette that “this can be a complicated issue to understand,” but assured her it fit in with the Delano Neighborhood Plan passed by the City Council earlier this year, which includes parking for the stadium, a new bike path and green space.

“To fund these projects, it is proposed that the Tax Increment district for Delano be expanded, allowing new property tax revenues to be returned to Delano,” the city’s post says.

“Also, the Mayor is just one vote, and this will be decided by the entire Council,” it says.

Racette said she was not satisfied with the answer and expects more details Tuesday.

“There’s no good explanation for why the selected areas were selected,” Racette said. “And I want that information before this goes any further.”

Chance Swaim won the Betty Gage Holland Award in 2018 for distinguished service to honor and protect the integrity of public dialogue on America’s college campuses. He has been a news reporter for The Wichita Eagle since 2018. You can contact him at 316-269-6752 and cswaim@wichitaeagle.com.
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