Tax abatements, tax rebates and other emerging economic development incentives soon will be under more scrutiny at City Hall.
City Manager David Corliss has begun advertising for a new position that will provide city commissioners recommendations on a variety of economic development issues.
"I think it is very important that the city get an independent analysis of economic development requests," Corliss said.
Specifically, the new position - titled an Economic Development Coordinator-Planner - would examine the costs and benefits of tax abatement requests, review tax increment financing projects and examine projects using the Neighborhood Revitalization Act.
All those economic development incentives involve using public tax dollars for a private project. The Lawrence Chamber of Commerce - which has a contract to do economic development marketing for the city - does some analysis of whether a project is worthy of a public investment. But some commissioners said that review needs to be done by somebody inside city government.
"I think the chamber probably will still take the lead on efforts to recruit businesses to town," City Commissioner Boog Highberger said. "But when it comes to working out incentives, the chamber doesn't have the same interest in our bottom line that we do."
Corliss said he didn't envision the new position eliminating the need for the city to contract with the chamber. Corliss said the chamber was the logical organization to recruit new businesses, and he said he was not planning to recommend that funding to the chamber be reduced.
"But I am insisting as strongly as I can that we do our own analysis," Corliss said.
Economic development activities have become a point of controversy after city commissioners were found to have violated the state's open meetings law by holding an executive session to discuss an economic development incentives package to Deciphera Pharmaceuticals, a startup company that was considering leaving Lawrence.
The major part of that violation was that chamber president Lavern Squier illegally attended the closed-door meeting.
Squier said that he respected the city's decision, but stopped short of endorsing it.
"If the person ends up doing what they're advertising for, I think we will have more information and data to work with," Squier said.
Privately, some community leaders have expressed concern that the new position could lead to a reduction in funding for the chamber and a weakening of the economic development partnership between the city, county and chamber.
Several city leaders on Thursday, however, said they didn't think the new position would reduce the amount of money the city provides to the chamber to do economic development work.
"I don't see it as a tradeout," City Commissioner Rob Chestnut said, although he said all portions of the city budget may be under strain and subject to cuts in 2009.
Chestnut, though, said he supported the new position because economic development incentives were becoming more complicated, and the city often didn't have clear-cut policies on how to use them.
The city's accepting applications through mid-January, and expects to have the position filled in early 2008. The position is scheduled to pay between $53,000 to $78,000.
In addition to reviewing specific projects, Corliss said the position could help with longer-range issues such as the redevelopment of the Farmland Industries property, assisting on efforts related to the National Heritage Area designation, and serving as a city liaison for regional bioscience activities.
The position originally was approved as part of the 2007 budget by the previous City Commission. Budget concerns stopped the position from being filled in 2007, but the current commission left the position in the 2008 budget.