When Kansas City needed help keeping a prestigious global architecture firm from leaving town last year, it reached out to an unlikely partner — the Port Authority of Kansas City.
The loss of the firm, Populous architecture, would have been a huge blow to Kansas City and its image. So the port authority swaggered up to the plate.
The state-chartered agency — whose commissioners are appointed by City Hall — cobbled together a 15-year property tax abatement for redevelopment of the old Board of Trade building near the Country Club Plaza. By saving money on taxes, the developers were able to offer Populous an attractive lease agreement that kept them from leaving town.
Since then, the port authority has become a big player in Kansas City redevelopment thanks to its ability to offer tax incentives with relatively little accountability. This has played out in a number of deals over the last few months, and it could be the back story of other deals to come, to the dismay of tax abatement critics.
“Make no mistake about it, these (port authority commissioners) are corporate developers,” said R. Crosby Kemper III, Kansas City Public Library director and perhaps the city’s most ardent abatement opponent.
The trend continuing under the port authority, he said, represents a “massive shift of taxes onto the working poor.”
Michael Collins, president and CEO of the port authority, says tax abatement critics just don’t get the mechanics of the deals. His agency is just trying to retain jobs and keep Kansas City competitive on a global scale, he said.
Collins, a former staffer for Sen. Kit Bond, is downright evangelistic about development: “I just see opportunity, a plethora of opportunity that Kansas City is hopefully going to love and cherish.”
As late as 2011, the port authority was the red-headed stepchild of the city’s Economic Development Corporation and running low on cash. Years of scandal, dysfunction and unfulfilled plans had stripped away respectability.
But now, five years later, it’s a financially secure stand-alone agency with a new name – Port KC. It has a new leader in Collins, a fresh batch of commissioners and an aggressive new mission to create jobs and spark development.
Port KC’s 10-year citywide plan calls for spending $133 million on development.
And clearly, not just along the river.
Eye of the storm
The reborn Port KC labored in relative obscurity until a few months ago, when minority groups and advocates for taxing jurisdictions such as the Kansas City Public Schools honed in on the agency.
These activists had been turning up the heat on the traditional City Hall tax abatement agencies, arguing that decades of abatements had cut school districts, libraries and other taxing jurisdictions out of millions in future income.
Late last year, they even mowed down one of the less onerous abatement projects to come along in a while. Their petition drive nixed plans to renovate an old Crossroads building into an environmentally friendly home for architecture firm BNIM.
Given the political heat on other city abatement agencies, it appears Port KC had quietly became a work-around for developers, allowing the tax-abatement process to continue, well … unabated.
“We’re not a workaround,” Collins insists, arguing that his agency has created 1,800 jobs in the past year and leveraged $16 in private development funds for every dollar in taxes it has abated.
But some advocates for the Kansas City Public Schools and representatives of the East Side, which rarely benefits from such deals, don’t see it that way. They showed up at a Port KC commissioner’s meeting for the first time in February.
Jan Parks, who chairs the education task force of the Metro Organization for Racial and Economic Equity, boiled the message down to a sound bite: “Taxing jurisdictions should not be banks for economic development.”
Jackson County officials, who collect those taxes and redistribute them to schools and others, aren’t convinced either.
“We all support economic development, particularly job creation," said Calvin Williford, chief of staff for Jackson County Executive Frank White. “Michael Collins is smart and capable and is doing what he believes is helpful to economic development.
“But I think he is going about it the wrong way.”
The criticisms are aimed in part at how Port KC abates taxes. Unlike at other city abatement agencies, Port KC uses what some see as a sleight-of-hand maneuver.
Because Port KC itself is exempt from property taxes, developers seeking abatements transfer their property to Port KC, which then leases it back to the developers.
At the old Board of Trade building for example, where the Populous firm moved, Collins said the city asked Port KC to step in and take ownership of the building. Port KC then issued bonds covering the cost of the transaction, and leased the property back to the developer.
One additional aspect of the deal that rankled some people was that the office location Populous left was made possible by a 25-year tax abatement the city granted for the building at 300 Wyandotte St.
That complex, complete with a city-financed 400-space parking garage, was designed by and custom-built for Populous. The company occupied 70 percent of the building until two years ago, when a dispute with the building’s owners over a new lease agreement caused them to pull up stakes.
“Competing abatements like that are totally nuts; there’s no reason for that,” said Kemper, of the Kansas City Public Library.
Yes there was, said Sean O’Byrne, of the Downtown Council. O’Byrne, who helped pave the way for the Populous move, said it helped keep an important company from moving out of Kansas City.
At Port KC, Collins acknowledges the criticism.
“I understand the argument over moving from one abated property to another abated property,” he said. “But we saw this as an opportunity to keep these jobs – jobs of a significant magnitude – in Kansas City.”
Today, the River Market building sits mostly vacant and appraised at a fraction of its original value. (Port KC happens to be one of the remaining tenants.)
Who knows what?
Jackson County's Calvin Williford is particularly troubled because he believes some Port KC abatements are done in relative secrecy.
“To have these third parties come in and redirect these funds without the input of the public feels very counter to good public policy,” Williford said. “It does great harm.”
A recent abatement at 20th and Main is his exhibit A.
Earlier this year, Port KC agreed to a lease-back deal for a $22 million, 112-room extended-stay hotel at 2001 Main St.
Port KC gave the developers — a subsidiary of Sunflower Development Group — a 10-year, 100 percent property tax abatement followed by a five-year, 50 percent abatement, saving them more than $2 million. After 15 years, Port KC will transfer the property back to the developers.
But Williford said Port KC never consulted the county about the project, as other city abatement agencies do. He said county officials learned some of the details only through press reports.
And some of the incentives in the deal “concerned” them.
In December, frustrated county officials said they made a last-ditch effort to get the details. They sent Port KC a request under the state open records law – a tool often used by snoopy, frustrated journalists, not bureaucrats.
Port KC denied the request two days later, telling county officials that the county’s previous threats to sue Port KC over abatement procedures gave them the right to do so.
Williford called that reasoning “very flimsy,” although he left open the option of suing Port KC in the future.
“We are not afraid to use whatever tools are necessary to make sure taxpayers are fully represented in this process,” he said.
Collins and Port KC offer a decidedly different version, and they back up parts of it with letters and copies of emails.
Another Port KC abatement deal that concerns Williford and others is a 20-year, 100 percent exemption for Corrigan Station, an office building under construction at 1828 Walnut. It saves developer Copaken Brooks some $2.2 million.
Overall, the developer will benefit from about $16 million in publicly funded subsidies at Corrigan Station. Those include historic tax credits and funding from the city.
Port KC’s Collins says it’s worth it because the project is expected to generate 662 office jobs with an average annual salary of $55,000.
But promised jobs from abated properties don’t always materialize.
And Williford said he’s still not convinced the abatements were needed.
He points out, for example, that the projects at 20th and Main and the Corrigan building are on or near the new light rail line.
After all, Williford said, light rail was supposed to enhance property values along the streetcar route.
“I support the streetcar,” Williford said. “I think it’s going to be a huge economic driver. “… But the streetcar in and of itself is enough of an economic incentive that they can stop giving away the money of the library and the school district.”
Sure, Collins said, the light rail line will “enhance the opportunity for development.” But he added that values do not go up immediately and critical gaps remain between project costs and estimated revenues.
Either way, the whole Port KC process – even if it complies with state law — needs a hard look, says Williford.
“There are fewer checks and balances than the public deserves to have when you are giving away their tax dollars,” he said.
And indeed, the Port KC process is not as rigorous as at other abatement agencies.
For example, other city agencies must show that the projects they are abating would not be built “but for” the tax break.
Port KC has used such analysis on some projects, but there is no requirement for them to do so. Under state law, they have the power to abate taxes even if developers could profit without them.
And, unlike other city abatement agencies, Port KC’s board of commissioners does not include members who represent taxing jurisdictions, such as the school district, libraries and mental health facilities.
In addition, Port KC abatements, unlike those given by other city agencies, do not require approval by the City Council.
In other words, while the mayor and City Council choose commissioners for the state-chartered port authority, those same politicians can dodge direct responsibility for the abatements those commissioners grant.
Williford says Port KC is likely to continue such generosity to developers because of the actions of Mayor Sly James.
The mayor, who many see as a decidedly pro-abatement politician, has acquired signed but undated resignation letters from all of Port KC’s current commissioners.
“Wow, that’s amazing,” Williford said when told of the letters. “Obviously that’s unprecedented for a mayor to have that much power.”
James was not pleased with Williford’s suggestion that Port KC commissioners would be inclined to check the wind direction out of the mayor’s office before voting on the next abatement deal.
“I don't micro-manage boards and commissions and I don't strong-arm any appointees,” James said in a statement.
He added that he had only once “accepted a pre-submitted board resignation letter,” and that was because an appointee “exceeded the scope of his responsibilities.”
“Port KC is a state agency,” the mayor added, “and inferring that the mayor of Kansas City can dictate the policy of a state agency is disingenuous at best.
“The issue the county has with Port KC appears to be a difference of opinion about Port KC’s mission. I’d prefer in-person discussions…rather than baseless accusations and insinuations through the media.”
The rhetoric is not likely to cease anytime soon, given the passion on both sides of the argument.
Critics have a basic misunderstanding of abatements, Collins said. Abatements are sometimes needed not because developers simply want a break, but often because banks won’t loan them money to redevelop without them.
He added that critics often forget that Port KC is not abating personal property taxes on equipment installed in new buildings, and that the salaries for the jobs they attract and maintain feed into the city’s earnings tax.
Besides, he added, Port KC has only approved about 30 percent of the abatement deals that have come before it, and it’s done so out in the open.
“We are transparent; we are not a back door,” Collins said.
As for Williford, he makes his view clear: “It would be our hope that Port KC spend time and energy on the riverfront and our riverfront park … instead of light rail and (the) Plaza.”
Mike McGraw is special projects reporter for KCPT’s Hale Center for Journalism.
This story is part of a reporting collaboration from KCUR and KCPT’s Hale Center for Journalism exploring the economics behind Missouri River navigation and Port KC development. You can read a longer, more-detailed version of this story on KCPT’s Flatland digital magazine.