City must vet its partners

Planeview would benefit greatly from a nearby Save-A-Lot grocery store, which has been in the works a long time. But the need for this and other economic development projects should never be so great as to justify ignoring city policy and failing to fully vet private partners to ensure they are worthy of public trust.

In our view, the Wichita City Council unwisely decided Sept. 14 to let developer Rob Snyder partly finance the Planeview store by charging its customers an extra 2 percent in sales tax — via a new state tool that effectively turns tax policy over to private business and, in this case, offensively extracts more taxes from a low-income neighborhood. That vote was 7-0.

Last week, on a 5-0 vote, the council compounded its mistake by setting a tax-increment financing plan for a Nov. 2 public hearing. If approved, the plan would let Snyder divert $403,000 of his own property taxes over 20 years to help pay off loans on parts of the development.

In further endorsing the plan, the council had to overlook some important new information — that Snyder's many low-income housing properties have been cited for code violations nearly 300 times in the past decade, that he owed hundreds of dollars in delinquent property taxes, and that city staff dropped the ball in not requiring Snyder to complete a disclosure questionnaire regarding court activity, owed taxes and other relevant matters.

Worse, Allen Bell, the city's director of urban development, only alerted council members to Snyder's housing code violations after The Eagle pushed for the information. "I didn't see it as an issue that would need to be brought to their attention," Bell said. Of course they should know about the violations. And The Eagle turned up more code violations related to Snyder and his companies than the city's vetting did, further calling into question the extent of the city's due diligence.

Two years ago, Mayor Carl Brewer was motivated to scold city staff for a failure of scrutiny and communication regarding a proposed redevelopment effort in Midtown, rightly calling for a "clear and defined process" for vetting potential developers. The latest case suggests the mayor has yet to get his wish.

The council may be sympathetic to Snyder, who has invested in low-income housing in neighborhoods that other developers avoid. And in this case, officials have stressed that the financial risk involved in the incentives rests with Snyder rather than the city.

Still, such deals put more than money at risk. The City Council has a responsibility to use its public tools wisely and cautiously, with thorough background checks, public transparency and fidelity to city policy. The council shouldn't seal the Planeview deal without taking these issues more seriously.