Last week I attended a political meeting about local economic issues. Those present were predominantly right-leaning in their views and probably would identify themselves as conservatives or republicans. Consequently, I was surprised to learn that one of the items on the agenda was a proposal to entice a business into the city by using tax increment financing. Tax increment financing involves manipulating property taxes.
Property taxes are calculated as a percentage of the assessed value of the property. For example, if your property is worth $100,000 and your property taxes are 5%, then you have to pay $5,000 in property taxes each year. Normally, as the assessed value of a piece of property increases, the property taxes increase as well. So, if the value of your property increases to $200,000, then you would have to pay $10,000—assuming taxes stay at 5%.
Property taxes go into a pool of money which the city council then divides up among various local government services. These services include schools, police departments, fire departments, road maintenance, city government, and so on. Since no one likes to pay taxes, there is a natural tension between the desire for more of these services and the desire to lower property taxes. Consequently, city councils are limited in what they can afford to do. A city council that chose to raise taxes to build a new building for Walmart, for example, would probably become unpopular very quickly. The people’s natural aversion to being plundered helps restrain local government power. But like weeds growing up through the cracks in the sidewalk, creative government employees have found ways around this restraint. One of these is tax increment financing. Tax increment financing gives the city council significant power to influence development and business within the city.
Despite its technical-sounding name, tax increment financing is quite simple. It is just a way for the city council to spend future property tax revenue to promote or pay for present development projects. Usually, when property is developed, its assessed value increases. Normally, this would mean that the owner of the newly developed property would owe higher property taxes, which would help fund local government services. But tax increment financing changes this. Instead of going into the general city fund, the additional tax money is earmarked to pay for the development itself. Usually this means that the city borrows the money to pay for the development up front and then slowly pays off the loan with the additional property taxes from the developed property. Alternatively, the developer fronts the costs of the development and the city freezes the property taxes at the pre-development level for a time so that the developer can recoup development costs in the form of lower taxes. Either way, property taxes that would otherwise go into the general fund to pay for local government services are instead set aside to pay for the development.
Advocates of tax increment financing argue that it is a win-win situation for the city because it doesn’t use any money from the pre-existing tax revenue, and because, in the end, the city’s tax income will be higher than it was before the project. But even if true, these assertions don’t address the consequences to the rest of the city outside of the project area or the consequences to the rest of the economy.
City councils like tax increment financing because it expands their power; it allows them to pay businesses to relocate within city limits without having to raise property taxes. But when a city council uses tax increment financing to pay for an incoming business’ property development expenses, all other businesses are suddenly placed at a disadvantage. Essentially they must compete with a business whose real estate expenses are paid by the city government. Obviously any business in direct competition with the subsidized business will suffer, but other businesses will suffer as well as they compete—at a disadvantage—for high quality human capital and other scarce resources.
Other businesses aren’t the only ones negatively affected; all consumers of city services suffer. When a new business moves into the city, it uses city resources in the form of increased traffic, demand for police and fire department protection, parking, and general wear and tear. But if a new business moves in under the protection of tax increment financing, it doesn’t pay for these services through its property taxes. Consequently, other property owners must either pay more taxes or the city will have to divert funds from other areas.
But the most serious problem, in my opinion, is that tax increment financing gives the city council power to intervene in the city’s economic development. This increases the likelihood of malinvestment by distorting the market forces that prevent inefficient companies from consuming resources that they cannot afford, and it opens the door to corruption.
Conservatives across America are furious about bailouts and stimulus packages originating in Washington D.C.—as they should be. But to me it seems terribly inconsistent to rail against the D.C. bureaucrats for their intervention in economic affairs and yet support local politicians who intervene in fundamentally the same way on a much smaller scale. If we believe in economic liberty, then let’s apply it consistently.