How did proposed policy change on incentives get added to budget?

The issues of school funding and property taxes seemed to dominate the debate over Alamance County’s newly-approved budget. But the conversation about this new spending plan also touched on other, more obscure matters – including a long-standing county policy that gives area residents some added insights into increasingly secretive area of public expenditure.

For well over a decade, Alamance County has had a rule on the books that obligates any company in search of subsidies to expand or relocate to be publicly identified before the board of commissioners schedules a state-mandated hearing on its request. This seemingly minor concession goes above and beyond the state’s statutory requirements, which allow companies to remain anonymous until the hearing itself – or even beyond it, according to some county officials.

At the moment, Alamance County’s comparatively transparent policy remains in place thanks to a fateful move that county commissioner Craig Turner made before he and two of his colleagues enacted the county’s new budget on Monday.

In his motion to adopt the new budget, Turner proposed the removal of a rather arcane passage about economic development from the recommended spending plan that the commissioners received from county manager Heidi York. Turner went on to suggest that the commissioners ought to deal with this item after the new budget had been implemented.

“I wanted to pull it,” Turner explained in a subsequent interview, “in order to discuss it in detail at an upcoming meeting so it’s separate from the budget process.”

Dubbed “Section XIII,” this passage in the county manager’s proposed budget ordinance may strike the casual reader as a mere recitation of the state’s notification requirements for public hearings about corporate incentives. The rub nevertheless comes in the final sentence, which declares that the aforementioned description of state law “is intended to preempt any previous local requirements.”

York concedes that this particular provision would allow companies to preserve their anonymity longer than the county’s current policy permits. She added that, prior to her arrival in Alamance County, she saw companies use code names in Durham and Person counties even as their requests for incentives were being approved. In fact, York said that, in her experience, it isn’t unusual for a company to delay its unmasking until the moment that the governor announces the site of a particular project.

York insists that the provision in her original budget ordinance would’ve given the corporations courting Alamance County the same degree of confidentiality that they receive in other parts of the state. This alignment with state norms is the whole point of the relevant passage, according to John Paisley, Jr., the chairman of Alamance County’s commissioners.

“This would remove the additional notice by the company and would put us in line with other counties.” the board’s chairman went on to elaborate in an interview. “What’s happening now is that other counties pick up on [a company’s plans] before our required public notice. Other people in the industry also pick up on it. So, it damages the new industry with no benefit to the county.”

The damage wrought by the existing policy is more than just hypothetical, according Alamance County’s Rik Stevens, who bases this conclusion on his interactions with the N.C. Department of Commerce.

“I have had conversations with state people who do economic development,” Stevens said in an interview, “and they told me that it’s hard to send incentives to us because of our policy.”

Meanwhile, York said that her contact at the local chamber of commerce has intimated that five corporate prospects have slipped through his fingers due to county’s disclosure requirement.

The county manager added that the chamber’s representatives have raised similar concerns about the county’s policy when they’ve gone behind closed doors with the commissioners to discuss economic development.

“The board was made aware in a closed session that they have lost a number of projects due to the disclosure requirement at this stage in the process,” York recalled in an interview Tuesday. “There was some direction and discussion by the board to include this as part of the budget ordinance, and that’s what we did. If they want to do it as a standalone policy, that avenue is open to them, but the budget ordinance is a vehicle for authorizations like this.”

Yet, the precise manner in which this provision wound up in the manager’s budget is nevertheless a bit of a head scratcher for the county’s top brass.

York attributes this decision to a consensus that the commissioners reached based on one of their private powwows with the chamber of commerce. The county manager stresses that she wasn’t acting on her own initiative when she incorporated Section XIII into the proposed budget.

“I have no dog in this fight,” she insisted, “and I didn’t come up with it myself.”

Stevens, for his part, insists that York never received a direct order from the board to pursue the proposed change while its members were behind closed doors.

“I don’t think that it’s appropriate for a closed session discussion,” the county attorney added. “But it could’ve been the [by]product of a closed session discussion.”

In the meantime, Paisley gives York and her subordinates full credit for proposing the policy change to the commissioners.

“She and Rik Stevens realized that our policy was not in line with state guidelines for economic development,” he insisted. “She told all of us at a work session to look at Section XIII…and I think she had personally called every commissioner and told us to look at that section.”

Turner, however, admits he has no inkling how the proposed policy change found its way in the budget – which ultimately compelled him to suggest its removal before Monday’s vote.

“I don’t remember any decision by the commissioners to include this in the budget at all,” he went on to assert in an interview with The Alamance News.

Read our editorial page views on the chicanery of county manager Heidi York in slipping this provision into proposed budget without any public discussion: