I went to a party a couple of weeks ago, at a farm wedged somewhere between the retail slums of Whitehall Crossing and Ellettsville. It was an absolutely gorgeous day and an even more gorgeous setting of gently rolling terrain of alternating fields and forest.
The kind of place that rejuvenates the soul. The kind of place that's becoming increasingly rare in Monroe County.
The farm lies smack in the middle of a vast arc, stretching from southeast of the airport, through the airport itself, and then swooping northeastward to State Road 37; an arc envisioned someday as the home of Bloomington's ring road, a mini I-465, and through other land held by an elite cadre of speculators enabled by the civic rhetoric of the growth machine.
Also an arc of a vast and largely undeveloped industrial zone, so designated decades ago in an undoubtedly under-advertised meeting of an obscure but powerful body called, with something of an Orwellian chill, the Monroe County Redevelopment Commission. Orwellian because, as far as I know, the body has never actually engaged in any redevelopment, only development.
Like plans to plow under and pave over places like those of my friend's farm, in the name of growth and progress.
The farm, like the land around it, is part of something called a "tax increment finance" district. That's a place where a property owner makes out his annual property tax check not to the community that husbands him, but to himself. And, in the case of a tax-abated property owner, gets his neighbors to make out their property tax checks to him, also.
"Tax abated," there's another term. It sounds like "taxes deferred," but really it's "taxes forgiven." An abated property, for a typical period of 10 years, simply doesn't have to pay the same taxes that non-abated properties do. But that doesn't mean there's less money coming in: the taxes not paid by the abated property are simply collected by raising taxes on everyone else.
Imagine the electric company telling you, "Just pay half your bill, we'll raise the rates on your neighbors to cover the difference." That's what a tax abatement is.
A race to the bottom
Tax abatements are supposed to be inducements -- to cause something to happen, economic development, that wouldn't happen without them. Mississippi was, in the 1940s, the first state to use abatements as an economic development tool. At the time it lagged every other state in the nation in terms of economic development.
It still does.
There's no evidence that abatements spur economic development nor influence corporate siting decisions (other factors such as labor costs, access to markets and availability of suppliers are far more important), yet every month of every year communities across our state and nation pit themselves against one another in a race to the bottom to see who can give the most away.
Came recently to the land next to the farm is a southern firm by the name of PrintPack. Through the actions of its Sherpa, the Bloomington Economic Development Corporation (the agent working on behalf of the aforementioned elite cadre of speculators), PrintPack had been steered away from existing properties in the county in need of redevelopment and toward a pristine soybean field hard within the tax increment district; a field in need, dire need, of development.
Or so they tell us.
Ask and ye shall receive came the mantra, as PrintPack requested a nearly million-dollar road be constructed from the property taxes of others, for its benefit. Ask and ye shall receive came the mantra, as PrintPack requested a $2.5-million tax holiday against its own tax obligations.
A stirring polity
While this process was nothing new, and certainly not unprecedented, it nevertheless managed to generate for reasons that are not quite clear to me a stirring of public curiosity. "Tell us again why we are using public money to pave paradise?" came the question from a groggy citizenry.
"Tell us again why one of our existing brownfields couldn't have been adapted for re-use?" they asked, perplexed.
For never before had even the slightest impudence on the part of the public registered on the clipboards of those whose job it was to grease the rails of the great Holy Grail known as the "public/private partnership."
The newspaper ran far more than its usual share of articles on the subject. Radio media such as IU's WFIU ran multi-part stories on it. The company did what companies always do in this situation: they became a bit bellicose, threatening to leave Monroe County altogether and head for other opportunities southward should their requests, particularly the as-yet-unconsummated tax abatement, not come to fruition.
The media coverage afforded an opportunity, however, for county government to play a role slightly different from its traditional one as fawning development sycophant. It could play the role of a fawning development sycophant that sensed a political opportunity.
"Not to worry," said the Monroe County Council to the public who had elected it. "Not to worry, we'll hold their feet to the fire. Not to worry, we'll get them to use local builders. Not to worry, we'll get them to agree to a clawback."
All of which, of course, the company did; which is never a good sign for those of us used to how business-as-usual is usually conducted. When someone, or something, gives up too easily -- particularly when that something is a multi-billion dollar corporation lawyered up out the wazoo -- it's usually a sign that they're not giving up at all, you just think they are.
And that's just fine with them.
Came proof of that pudding this week when, well before the county government's clawbacks, labor promises or anything else were negotiated -- much less the tax abatement itself was signed, sealed and delivered -- was visible proof that the company was well on its way toward completing the construction of the factory it had said it would not build absent its demands. Well on its way toward completing a factory adjacent to my friend's farm.
Also meaning, it never doubted that its demands would be met. Which they, of course, will.
A 'lose-lose option,' politically
A certain gnashing of teeth ensued among our elected representatives, who are scheduled to vote on the agreement between themselves and their corporate partner this next Tuesday and to grant, or not (hah!), the abatement on the merits of the agreement -- an agreement already rendered moot by the company's actions.
In the vernacular, we'd say the Council was "owned." Naively thinking it had a political opportunity to "do the right thing" in the public's eyes while being played like a violin by its partner, who knew better, if for no other reason than they'd already played out the same script in hundreds of communities racing ahead of ours, racing to the bottom.
Gregory Travis can be reached at email@example.com.