Column: Confidentiality is a must for economic development

  • Posted: Thursday, June 20, 2013 8:07 a.m.

The mission of the Economic Development Partnership is to raise Aiken County’s per capita income, diversify our local labor force and increase our community’s tax base. For the past 29 years, the partnership has taken this mission very seriously.

In response to the editorial published on June 13, the process of economic development is complex and can be perceived as secretive. The process is based on confidentiality, which is driven by the companies in question, and not by Aiken County. More often than not, the partnership is bound by non-disclosure agreements that prospective companies require prior to discussions about new projects taking place.

Why is this confidentiality necessary?

Most companies have competition in the marketplace. An untimely release of information would alert competitors to their plans. This information, taken out of context, could also negatively impact shareholder relations and create workplace disruption with companies’ employees at existing locations if moves or expansions are contemplated.

The Aiken County Council is deliberate and conservative in its decision-making process when offering incentives such as fee-in-lieu-of-taxes agreements to qualified companies.

These agreements have a statutory minimum investment requirement of $2.5 million, but County Council requires the investment to be significantly greater than the legal minimum.

Without the fee-in-lieu agreements, local industries are taxed at a 10 percent property tax assessment ratio versus a 4 percent ratio for homeowners. Yet these industries typically require fewer government services than the average homeowner. In addition, these companies provide good paying jobs for our residents, who then spend their paychecks on goods and services in the county.

In comparison to neighboring states, South Carolina’s industrial property tax rates aren’t competitive. In remedying this situation, fee-in-lieu-of-taxes agreements help level the property-tax playing field.

The taxes process requires three readings by County Council and a public hearing before final approval. At the public hearing, any member of the community can speak before Council on these measures. Though South Carolina law allows companies seeking fee-in-lieu-of-taxes agreements to remain confidential during the first two readings, they must reveal their identity by the third reading.

Some argue that these tax agreements give money away. In response, I ask, how can you give away something you don’t have? Companies can choose to locate here or not to locate here, but if they do not come, then Aiken County receives no new jobs, and the tax base fails to grow. A growing tax base provided by industry helps lower the tax rates paid by Aiken County homeowners. A stagnant tax base does the exact opposite.

In addition, note that Aiken County has zoning regulations and development standards. Industry is only allowed to locate in areas designated for these activities. Should a “nuclear facility” or “hog farm” choose to locate in the county as the editorial envisioned, not only would they be required to locate into certain zones, but they would also need specific permits from the Department of Health and Environmental Control. This would require even more public input than normal.

To its credit, Aiken County has stopped discussions with companies interested in locating here because they would not have been good fits in our community.

Aiken County has been very successful over the years in attracting strong, stable companies such as Bridgestone, Tognum America, Owens Corning, Kimberly Clark, Pepperidge Farms, BAE Systems, Metso and many others.

Communities throughout both our state and nation envy our success. The Economic Development Partnership in cooperation with the Aiken County Council will continue to aggressively pursue new job opportunities and private capital investments to enhance our county’s prosperity and standard of living.

Will Williams is the director of the Economic Development Partnership.

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