Thursday, July 18, 2024

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County manager’s sneaky, backdoor scheme to conceal incentives information from taxpayers is a real insult

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Well, we’ll have to chalk this up as a rare occurrence, if not a first.

While expressing our deep disappointment in the decision of commissioner Craig Turner to push for the higher ABSS spending and raising the property tax rate in the process (see adjacent comments), we have to give credit where credit is due, as it were, in thanking him for not being a part of the county manager’s devious skullduggery on another front.

Buried in the text of the proposed budget that county manager Heidi York put together was a provision designed to overturn the county’s decade-long policy, adopted back when now-state senator Amy Galey was chairman of the board of commissioners, of providing needed transparency in the process of considering incentives projects for industries seeking to locate, or expand, in the county.

Only because Turner would not go along with the stealth provision, and made the motion to exclude it from the final budget, did anyone even know it had been hidden in there in the first place.

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Not one word was mentioned on the subject during any of four “work sessions” on the budget (more than eight hours of often rambling discussion), or at any other open meeting. York slipped in the provision surreptitiously, ostensibly at the behest of the local chamber of commerce, to provide more secrecy during the process.

We’ll be the first to admit that we don’t particularly like the exemption in the current Open Meetings Law that allows commissioners and city councils to go behind closed doors to consider whether, and how much, to give to various industrial concerns contemplating a move, or expansion.

But we acknowledge that’s the law.

What is not the law is hijacking a closed meeting called for that purpose to discuss and develop a policy designed to override existing county requirements on announcing incentives hearings.  And from York’s own description, that’s apparently exactly what she did.

Alternatively, back-room discussions between York and individual commissioners might have produced the secret provision.

Take your pick of which way this evolved.  In either case, however, it’s not the way government is supposed to work.

It’s a devious disservice to the taxpayers.  The ultimate, underlying message is that taxpayers don’t really need to know where their money is being spent – which is what many bureaucrats and politicians believe. We’re just saddened to think elected commissioners might be sympathetic to such scheming.

Somewhere, and it certainly wasn’t at an open portion of any meeting, chamber representatives apparently complained to the commissioners that some companies were objecting to being identified – or at least being identified “too early” in the process – and preferred that everything be kept under wraps, apparently until the day of a public hearing on an anonymous industrial project.

From York’s description, she apparently thinks commissioners can even vote millions of dollars in incentives for a project without naming the company that would be getting the money when they do so.

This is not good government.

It’s not fair to the taxpayers, who deserve to know – at least by that point – who’s seeking their tax dollars and for what purpose.  And what the county is considering in the way of incentives dollars, terms, years of payout, etc. – and what are the long-term benefits to the county of doing so.

At a minimum, as Turner aptly noted, the proposed policy change deserves a separate discussion and open debate by the county commissioners. We thank him for not joining in York’s conniving subterfuge.

We very much doubt the alleged rationale for the change: that some companies won’t consider coming to Alamance County because they don’t want to be identified before the public hearing.

York insists that the chamber folks say there are some actual  companies that decided not to locate in Alamance County because of the disclosure process.

While we very much doubt the veracity of such claims – which, of course, no one is willing to produce any evidence to substantiate – it also raises the question: what are they trying to hide?

And, if it were true, our second reaction would be ‘good riddance’ to these corporate suitors. We don’t need those kinds of companies in Alamance County, particularly not when they’re seeking millions of dollars from the county’s taxpayers.

One of the provisions included in the county’s current policy – at the insistence years ago by then-commissioner Tim Sutton – is an employment impact analysis.  The current policy requires the company to show how many jobs, and at what pay levels, will be brought by the new company, or by a plant expansion of an existing company.

Frankly, though, we also note the declining number of incentives requests – not, we would suggest because of companies’ alleged shyness to be revealed – but because the impetus for such financial “recruitment” techniques is declining.

Alamance County does not need to offer incentives to persuade companies to locate their distribution centers here anymore.  Yes, there were generous packages to attract Walmart’s original center, and Lidl’s next door; super big projects like those and UPS have gotten incentives.  But others – Amazon’s distribution center, for instance – didn’t seek any incentives.   It’s simply a natural locale for a centrally-located distribution network.

But taxpayers deserve to know, before a public hearing on the subject, what is being proposed, for whom, and under what conditions. That’s what the county’s current policy provides and what would be overridden by York’s proposed secretive ambush.

We always appreciate the compliments of readers and other observers who thank us for being a “watchdog” over local governments.

Unfortunately, when we see things like the county manager’s duplicitous attempt this week to sneak through a significant policy provision that was never publicly discussed, we can only wonder how much worse it could be if we weren’t around to be “watching.”

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