Throughout the years-long saga of Ken Ham’s quixotic quest to build a Noah’s ark replica according to the instructions set forth in Genesis (kinda), a lot has changed.
The price estimates have moved up, the scope of the project has been drastically reduced, the opening date has been pushed back more times than a 60-pound sumo wrestler. Even the organization’s policy on discriminating in their hiring practices has changed, from pretending like they wouldn’t to openly admitting they would.
But in all this, two things have remained the same: The end result has always been a useless, non-floating wooden ship, and the AiG mantra has always been that taxpayers will not be paying for it.
Maintaining this second point took some pretty creative reasoning after, you know, AiG sued the state of Kentucky over tax dollars, but fortunately Ham and his team are used to such acrobatics.
However, thanks to some good digging from Tracey Moody, a contributor at the Friendly Atheist, we now know a lot more about how this particular project is being paid for. And — surprise, surprise — it’s mostly funded by tax dollars.
What this all keys on is something called tax increment financing, commonly called TIF districts or just TIFs. TIFs are a form of publicly subsidized economic development, which uses predicted future gains in tax revenue to fund community redevelopment and improvement projects, often reserved for blighted areas.
It works like this. Let’s say there is a run-down commercial area of your town, where the top industries are mugging people and avoiding being mugged. In other words, not a lot of tax dollars are being generated there. Your town’s leaders decide to establish a TIF district that includes that area (and a lot of other property as well, to generate enough revenue to make the planned projects feasible).
Then, your town commissions some redevelopment projects in the blighted area (new streets and sidewalks, lights, public art, etc.), borrowing against the increase in taxes the area is expected to generate once people are no longer afraid to go there without a flamethrower and bulletproof vest.
If this whole “free money” concept sounds a little too good to be true, then you know why TIFs are both incredibly popular and incredibly large headaches for most of the elected officials of the towns and counties in which they exist. (I’ve even encountered this in my own work as a humble journalist.)
California, the state that started TIFs in the first place, has discontinued them, due to the number of lawsuits (and crippling debt) they’ve generated. When the people who came up with the idea pull a Dr. Frankenstein and try to kill the monster they’ve created, you can take it as a clue that TIFs are probably not the answer to all of life’s ills that city planners dream of.
Now, if you’re scratching your head about how the financing concept I’ve just described fits the construction of a young-earth creationism-based theme park on empty farmland, you’re pretty much in the same place I’ve been in since I found out the leaders of Grant County and Williamstown, Kentucky, agreed to establish a TIF to fund the Ark Encounter.
It’s all part of a lengthy development agreement that was approved in 2012, in which both the city and county pledged to return 75 percent of the tax revenue generated from the Ark Encounter back to Answers in Genesis. For the next 30 years. In addition, the city agreed to establish a 2 percent “job assessment fee” on the gross wages earned by employees who have the misfortune of working in the area covered by the agreement.
Which means a portion of the money Ark Encounter employees earn goes right back to their employer — though, considering that you wouldn’t be hired to work there unless you’re a true believer in everything AiG stands for anyway, the only concern park staff will probably have is why only 2 percent was taken out of their paychecks instead of the full 10.
Where are all these tax dollars going? According to the agreement, “to support the payment of TIF bonds issued to pay for project costs or redevelopment assistance” and to “reimburse the developer for project costs.”
Those “TIF bonds” are evidently the $62 million in unrated junk bonds the city of Williamstown issued to the project but assumed absolutely no responsibility for. If there’s a default, AiG isn’t on the hook either. In financial circles, this is known as “a stupid thing to invest in.”
Let me explain who the developer is real quick. In these documents, it’s Ark Encounter, a for-profit LLC owned and operated by Crosswater Canyon, a nonprofit owned by AiG.
Crosswater Canyon, as far as I can tell, was created for the sole purpose of this project, and in particular, navigating the various times that it needs to be a nonprofit ministry (to seek tax-deductible donations) or a for-profit endeavor (to seek tourism-related tax incentives).
To be clear, we don’t know exactly how much of their horrifically risky junk bonds AiG managed to sell (cuz they’re not telling), but now we do know that it doesn’t really matter, since whatever wasn’t covered in the sale will be footed by future TIF revenues out of the coffers of Williamstown and Grant County.
And even if those bonds are ever paid off, AiG still gets paid for the full 30 years, to “reimburse” it for “project costs.”
Which means — yeah — as much as $62 million of this supposedly $70 million (or is it $92 million now, Hammy?) project will ultimately be paid for by tax dollars. And that’s not even counting the chump change AiG has sued the state over.
So how in the world does Ham and AiG get off saying that taxpayers aren’t paying for their ridiculous vanity project? By playing word games. Check this out, from AiG co-founder and chief communications officer Mark Looy:
While tax incentives are being applied for by the for-profit Ark Encounter LLC, it’s regrettable that some journalists, intentionally or not, have left readers and viewers with a totally wrong impression about the state’s involvement, falsely reporting that the Ark project will be a drain on state revenues. No funds will be taken from the Kentucky state budget and away from state programs (e.g., social services, schools, etc.) to help operate the Ark Encounter before or after it opens.
This is Loony trying to explain how tax “incentives” aren’t really taxes (kind of like how softcore pornography isn’t really pornography, right?), but I’m guessing their justification for the TIF would be very similar. And it’s true, in a roundabout way. Because the TIF payments are based on new tax revenue, it’s technically accurate to say these tax dollars are not coming out of the current funding for public programs like schools and law enforcement and won’t be a “drain” on the existing budgets for those programs.
However, it’s also accurate to say that we are, in fact, talking about millions of real, actual dollars that will not be spent toward serving the county, city and their residents, because they’ll be going to pay off the ark’s junk bonds or directly into the pockets of AiG. Which also means that if the area around the ark park does explode with development like city and county officials hope, the additional services needed there (infrastructure, law enforcement, medical care, etc.) will have to pretty much be accommodated within their existing budgets — since 75 percent of new revenues will be swallowed by the ark TIF.
This kind of doublespeak is nothing new for Ken Ham and his organization, but it’s always alarming to see ostensibly Christian leaders play fast and loose with the truth so casually, especially in justifying something as absurdly unbiblical as this project.
In other news, the ark opens July 7. Still plenty of time for Ham and his brain trust to change whatever they feel they need to to make this colossal waste of time and money seem like something that is consistent with the gospel of Jesus Christ.