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Travis County looks to reconfigure its economic development package

Wednesday, February 9, 2011 by Michael Kanin

Travis County officials are considering a series of changes to the jurisdiction’s economic development incentives. If approved, the effort would refocus county tax abatements on attracting firms that would better stimulate employment among the county’s low income un- and underemployed residents.


If approved, the new measures would set a 50 percent abatement baseline to attract firms to Travis County. Officials would then layer on additional incentives that would aim to draw companies to desired development areas, promote the hiring of county residents living at or below 200 percent of federal poverty standards, and look to relocating companies to help provide education to their employees.


The court is planning for a work session on March 3 that will hash out more of the details. It expects to include at least one official from the Community Action Network as well as the director of the City of Austin’s Economic Growth and Redevelopment Services Office, Kevin Johns, and his top deputy, Rodney Gonzales. Officials from the office of Governor Rick Perry and various chambers of commerce will also be included in the discussion.


“There’s a list of a whole lot of things I think that we can do here in Austin, Travis County, Texas, to make sure that (this) becomes a possibility,” said Precinct 1 Commissioner Ron Davis.


Davis brought the matter before the court with Precinct 2 Commissioner Sarah Eckhardt. Eckhardt told her colleagues that the measure is intended to “work on the underemployment and unemployment of the bottom third of our community.”


“As we know, the unemployment rate in Travis County is about double what it was three years ago,” she continued. “That unemployment impacts those at 200 percent of the federal poverty … the hardest.”


Eckhardt also noted that state and school district layoffs could be coming. “The state is one of our – if not our largest – employers in Travis County,” she said. “So, we have to be proactive in response to the facts on the ground and the facts that are likely to be on the ground rather soon.”


Precinct 4 Commissioner Margaret Gomez suggested that the court also take a look at living wages. Eckhardt didn’t think that would fly.


“I 100 percent agree with you, that a living wage is something that we should definitely advocate for,” she said. “I would anticipate that if we’re getting kickback from the Chamber of Commerce just on a hiring requirement of 50 percent from Travis County, they’re going to howl like a cat thrown in water if we demand a living wage.”


Still, she saw room for including some version of the issue in the new policy. She suggested that companies will have to hire full time employees when acting to fulfill their employment obligations. “I believe that to some degree we address the concern with regard to living wage in our definition of employee in the draft policy because we excluded … any non-full time or seasonal worker, which … (means) that you can’t count (them) in your overall employee numbers,” she said.


After the hearing, Eckhardt told In Fact Daily that the measure is designed to close a gap. “We need to do a better job of coordinating economic development and workforce development efforts so that we can be reasonably assured that we’re creating jobs where they are most needed,” she said.

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