It doesn’t happen often, but this year there’s a competitive race for Overland Park, Kansas, mayor.
The race pits the longtime incumbent against an opponent who questions whether the city is too cozy with developers.
At 80th and Metcalf, the heart of Overland Park, a new mixed-use development is almost complete.
It’s being paid for, in part, with some tax breaks for the developer.
Those tax breaks and about a dozen others benefiting developers in Overland Park are the issue in the mayor’s race.
More about that in a moment, but first, let’s meet the candidates.
Charlotte O'Hara jumped in the race in January. During an interview at her south Overland Park home she says she's knocked on 2,700 doors. She points to a pile of note cards and envelopes. “Just any door that I touch I write a note to. I’m a little bit behind on my notes,” she says.
O’Hara has run for a lot of offices. She served a term in the Kansas House but unsuccessfully ran for Congress, state senate and Johnson County Commission chair. She had a long career in development and construction.
To say O’Hara has a tall order is an understatement, even if you forget her opponent is 6-foot-10.
Carl Gerlach is a life-long Overland Parker, went to Shawnee Mission South and played basketball at Kansas State University. He was elected mayor of Kansas’ second largest city in 2005 with 62 percent of the vote and had no opponent in his last two races.
Interviewed at his office at City Hall before a Council meeting, he says he's not surprised he has an opponent this year.
“No, I think a race is always good," says Gerlach. "It makes people clarify exactly what their positions are and when you’re running a city, it helps look into the future and let people measure which side of the decision they want to be on.”
The decision voters are being asked to make is whether Overland Park has granted too many tax incentives for projects from downtown to the far southern reaches of the city.
“I have not seen one project that I think is appropriate,” O'Hara says not just inappropriate but seriously improper. “If you have cronyism, then you can have corruption. I mean it just goes hand-in-hand. And there’s absolutely no reason that we are giving these huge tax incentives to these companies coming into Overland Park,” she says.
To be clear, O’Hara is not charging there’s anything illegal, just that Gerlach and the city have too close a relationship with builders and developers. Corporate welfare and too much of a "good old boys network," she says.
While Overland Park has the lowest property tax rate of any major city in Kansas, O'Hara fears the rate will climb if developer tax incentives aren't curbed. "We do not need to pay these companies to come in.”
Gerlach denies this and says Overland Park is ranked as one of the best places to live in America by several websites, (for example, WalletHub said the city was the best place to raise a family and Niche said it was the 8th best city to live in) and would not be nearly as attractive without developers and the city working together.
“My experience here in this seat, and talking to other mayors that have chosen that path, have reverted back to the path of looking for incentives now because they didn’t and they lost business to towns on either side of them,” Gerlach says.
Gerlach says tax incentives are a big reason Overland Park has created lots of jobs. “In the last 12 years we’ve brought in over 23,000 new jobs,” he says.
One of the most commonly used tax incentives is TIF, tax increment financing. (TIF was a big issue with the Shawnee Mission School District in the redevelopment of the Meadowbrook Country Club in Prairie Village two years ago.)
TIF deals are complicated but the premise is simple: development increases the amount of taxes a property generates. Some of that increase in tax revenue is diverted to the developer to lower their costs and make their project more profitable.
Of course, that means the city, school district and other taxing jurisdictions (like Johnson County Community College and the Johnson County Library) don’t benefit completely from that additional revenue, sometimes for 10 or 20 years.
"We are big advocates of the tool. We think it’s one of the most important tools in our tool box but not the only one,” says Toby Ritter, president of the Council of Development Finance Agencies in Columbus, Ohio. There aren’t many TIF experts, but Rittner is one.
He bristles at the notion that TIFs are corporate welfare. “In terms of that corporate welfare, yeah we hear that as probably the two or three things that folks will say. It’s entirely inaccurate.”
And though he’s a TIF advocate, Rittner says cities that have used them for a long time should take an especially hard look at future projects.
"We’ve all used TIF a lot, let’s just take a step back," he says. "Let’s reevaluate what we’re going to do here and make sure we’re using the tool properly. And that’s a really good public policy approach for our communities.”
Here are the politics of all this: O’Hara is running on an issue that doesn’t have a terribly emotional hook. It’s not like calling for more cops or better streets.
But the charge of corporate welfare is not without resonance.
On the other hand, Gerlach is popular. In his last campaign finance report in July, he had almost $105,000 dollars on hand. O’Hara had just $5,600.
Voters will decide on November 7 whether to give Gerlach a fourth term.