Economic development involves partnerships between the city and various businesses. These partnerships exchange tax breaks, bond financing and other public contributions for new jobs paying wages at or above community standards and for new investment in real property.
Over the last few years, Lawrence has entered into partnerships with 17 firms. Thirteen of these partnerships have failed to produce at least 90 percent of the promised jobs, pay at least 75 percent of employees wages that are at least 90 percent of community average wages, or make at least 90 percent of the promised investment. Even with these generous standards for compliance, to have 13 out of 17 partnerships fail indicates that the city has received poor guidance in its economic development activities. It is compelling evidence that the city needs to seek new leadership in its economic development planning.
The Lawrence City Commission has previously articulated that it grants tax breaks in order to gain good jobs paying wages at or above community standards and to leverage new investment. The Public Incentives Review Commission (PIRC) annual reports address several issues beyond simply the jobs created, but there is no doubt that the new jobs and wages are the reason the city gives tax breaks to these firms. Minus the jobs and wages, other benefits, such as community involvement, simply do not justify the costs of the tax breaks.
Abuse of the tax abatement program is widespread and ongoing. Some firms promised that they would create permanent full-time jobs but instead hired workers through temporary employment agencies paying low wages with few or no benefits. Some firms have failed to report their job counts and wages levels. Some firms have paid wages below community standards while unabated firms are paying at or above these standards.
There can be no question that if a firm fails to fulfill its part of the bargain, then the city is being denied the benefits it expects in return for the tax break. The PIRC exists to check on the performance of the abated firms. Efforts to divert the work of the PIRC may be viewed as good advocacy for business, but it is harmful to the city of Lawrence and its taxpayers. This level of non-compliance leaves the city with a weak reputation, rendering it unable to negotiate effectively with new or existing firms. Word is out: Lawrence does not enforce the terms of its economic development agreements. A firm can promise much and deliver little, with impunity.
With a program of this scale, it would be expected that two or maybe three firms would be out of compliance. However, to have 13 out of 17 partnerships fail to deliver the promised jobs, wages and investment is truly remarkable. The non-compliance found in Lawrence's tax abatement program has little to do with economic cycles. One non-compliant firm came to the PIRC explaining its low level of employment as a function of the economic downturn, and the PIRC agreed that the firm was non-compliant for reasons out of its control. However, economic cycles cannot justify a firm hiring temporary employees while unabated firms offer permanent positions. Economic cycles do not justify low wages to abated firms while unabated firms pay at or above community standards.
The most disconcerting fact is that Lawrence would probably have gained nearly all of the jobs generated by these firms without giving away wasteful tax breaks. Firms choose a location for many reasons, and property tax breaks rarely enter into a firm's decision process. Wage levels paid in a community, the availability of land and labor, access to transportation and the cost of utilities all are much more important to the location decision than are property tax rates. Lawrence has comparative advantages in these areas.
In addition, unabated tax rates in Lawrence are often lower than abated taxes in competing locations, suggesting that the city is foolish to give away something that it does not need to give away to compete for firms. Abated firms have admitted after the fact that the tax abatement did not factor into their location decision. They simply told the city that abatements were necessary, even though they would have located in Lawrence anyway.
The failure rate of abated firms in Lawrence is too high to justify. The economic development planners who have guided the city into this position should be replaced. Lawrence needs and deserves effective economic development planning carried out by skilled professionals reporting to the City Commission.