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Travis County commissioners approve economic incentive policy

Wednesday, November 28, 2012 by Elizabeth Pagano

After about three years of talks, Travis County Commissioners Court wrapped up study of a comprehensive economic development incentive policy on Tuesday. The new policy won unanimous approval.


Effective immediately, companies that wish to qualify for county economic tax incentives must meet minimum wage requirements for their employees, including construction workers that are contracted to help establish businesses.


These requirements parallel the county’s own minimum wage, which is $11 per hour. A few hours later and a few blocks away, Austin City Council’s Special Committee on Economic Incentives made the same recommendation to set a $11 wage floor as the city also is working to update its policy for providing economic incentives to businesses bringing jobs to the city.


Commissioner Sarah Eckhardt championed the landmark minimum wage clause. Despite the win, she made it clear that, in her mind, the new policy established a baseline for companies seeking incentives, but was not a guarantee the county would grant incentives.


“It’s a tightly written policy meant to set a high bar for companies seeking preferential tax treatment,” said Eckhardt. “This establishes initial eligibility, but does not ensure the granting of incentives by Travis County. … This is not an entitlement program.”


“I think we must be vigilant in utilizing the policy lest it become a sense of entitlement for every company that moves here that has a certain number of employees and a certain level of taxable property,” Eckhardt continued. “That’s not what the intent is. It is not for every company that moves here that meets that minimum bar.”


Dave Porter, senior vice president for economic development for the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce, remained critical of the wage floor.


“What you have in front of you is a good policy for those types of projects that require a four-year college degree,” said Porter. But he said the county may be at a disadvantage in attracting jobs that don’t require workers with college degrees. “We are most concerned that this is not a competitive policy to help attract good manufacturing projects to Travis County.”


Officials with the Workers Defense Project, who have long advocated for establishing a wage standard, did not speak at the meeting, though they were well represented at Austin City Hall and had attended previous  county meetings.


In addition to the wage floor, the new policy establishes floors for minimum property investments of $25 million and job creation of 100, with added incentives available for companies that exceed those criteria, or participate in LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certification programs.


Commissioner Ron Davis said that it was time to move forward on the policy, and that he was ready to vote last week, but waited for commissioners Huber and Gomez to return to the court after being absent the prior week.


Commissioner Margaret Gomez said, “This is a very social program as well. I don’t think there is any better social program than having a job that will pay you a good wage. I think this is just very fair to include all of the workers.”


County Court Judge Sam Biscoe noted that there is a section in the policy that allows commissioners to waive the requirements if it’s in the best interest of the county. In his mind, this won’t be happening anytime soon.


“I see us applying the policy and I don’t think it would make any sense in the world to adopt this and not apply it,” said Biscoe. “Otherwise two years of work would be down the drain.”

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