Woodcut of medieval scene
Patrick Tuohey

A recent Kansas City Star story on the proposed Kansas City general obligation bonds, (GO Bonds) contained the following:

This year’s campaign is dubbed Progress KC. So far, the biggest contributors include Burns & McDonnell, JE Dunn, Mark One Electric, and several development and law firms.

Supporters are counting on the Heavy Constructors to help fund the campaign. That group, whose members stand to benefit from the infrastructure jobs, won’t officially decide until later this month.

It was nice to see the Star make a point of mentioning that financial backers of the 40-year property tax increase such as Burns & McDonnell, JE Dunn, and the Heavy Constructors have a bottom-line interest in the matter. They will likely get a lot of the money that they are asking taxpayers part with. But at least two of the biggest donors have something else in common.

Both Burns & McDonnell and JE Dunn do not pay the full property tax on their respective headquarters buildings. Or rather, thanks to Kansas City’s generous tax subsidy programs such as tax increment financing (TIF), much of their property, sales, and earnings taxes are returned to them to offset the costs of their impressive corporate pleasure domes. Readers of The Pitch may recall that Burns & McDonnell contributed heavily to convince voters to keep the earnings tax, and then lobbied the city to have a portion of its own earnings tax returned to it to build that same headquarters.

Walter Johnson, a professor of African American Studies at Harvard University recently spoke at the Kansas City library and referred to this sort of practice as “a fundamentally feudal model of corporate citizenship.” Rather than pay taxes to support institutions that are vitally important to the community—such as schools, libraries and the like—these corporations seek to avoid taxes and instead give charitably to the causes they themselves deem worthy. Johnson concludes:

Corporations shouldn’t have to keep their communities afloat through charitable giving. That’s what taxes are for, and that’s why paying them is typically considered a civic obligation, not an act of generosity.

That Kansas City is suffering from years of infrastructure mismanagement is a cold, hard fact. And it won’t surprise anyone to learn that those most eager to enact the tax will profit from its adoption. Yet it is a civic shame that those same corporations calling for an increase in others’ property taxes have spent so much effort trying not to pay their own taxes. Burns & McDonnell and JE Dunn should accept their own civic obligation before passing it on to others.

About the Author

Patrick Tuohey
Patrick Tuohey

Patrick Tuohey is the Director of Municipal Policy at the Show-Me Institute.