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Ex-employees irked by breaks offered company

A group of former Continental Tire employees are blowing the horn on a deal that's bringing the car tire maker's headquarters to northern Lancaster County, saying the tax breaks are unfair.

"They don't deserve incentives from anybody," said Eddie Therrell, a Fort Mill resident who spent 26 years building tires at Continental's plant off Westinghouse Boulevard in Charlotte before he was laid off two years ago. He's one of a handful of disgruntled former workers who are speaking out about the move since it was announced last month.

"I want them to go to Brazil," said Mark West of Rock Hill, laid off after 28 years. "That's where they sent our jobs."

In an interview with The Herald last week, nearly a dozen laid-off workers, retirees and their spouses said their complaints against Continental include unfair wage negotiations with the Steelworkers Union, not honoring seniority during layoffs, the lack of severance pay and access to retirement savings after layoffs and higher insurance premiums.

Continental officials did not respond to requests for an interview about the former employees' complaints.

County, state rebates under fire

Continental Tire North America plans to move its headquarters from uptown Charlotte to MacMillan Business Park near Indian Land by early next year. In exchange for the move, Continental has been offered a property tax rate freeze at 6 percent and up to $200,000 in tax rebates from the Lancaster County Council. The company also will receive job development credits from the S.C. Department of Commerce for new jobs created.

But the incentives don't sit well with former employees.

Doug Riley of Fort Mill said he worked for Continental for 25 years. He joined hundreds on strike and was laid off when tire production at the Westinghouse Boulevard plant ceased in 2006 after the Steelworkers and Continental couldn't agree on a wage decrease that Continental said was necessary to remain profitable. Since then, Riley said Continental has kept him on a list of workers who are eligible to be recalled. But that means he, and others like him, can't access money in his 401(k) retirement account -- money he says he needed when he couldn't find work. He also said he never received a cent of severance pay.

"Continental can do what they want, but I'm disgusted that the state of South Carolina would negotiate with them after what they've done to us," Riley said. "We were done wrong."

Other complaints focus on insurance premiums. A group of Continental retirees recently sued the company for allegedly unjustly raising insurance premiums. A federal judge last year ruled in the retirees' favor, but not before many lost their insurance because of the rising prices.

Jack Morton of Lancaster retired from Continental after 31 years, but when his insurance premiums escalated to more than $1,000 a month for he and his wife, Connie, he had to cancel the policy because it was more than he could afford, he said. Then, Connie suffered a heart attack, and the couple piled up $50,000 in medical bills they'll be paying until they die, they said. The Mortons blame Continental.

"Everyone in South Carolina should be ticked off that they're coming here," Connie Morton said.

Councilman: Continental treated fairly

Lancaster County Councilman Bryan Vaughn, who represents Indian Land, where the Continental office will be, said he understands the concerns. However, he said how Continental treated its employees wasn't a major factor in the county's decision. Instead, leaders looked more at the company's financial stability.

Vaughn said despite the incentives, Continental will be taxed at a higher rate than homeowners, easing the tax burden on residents. A large office also has the ability to spawn spin-off growth. He said the combined economic benefit for the county was the deciding factor.

"Especially in the panhandle, the more commercial development, the better," Vaughn said, noting the imbalance of homes and businesses in fast-growing Indian Land, an area becoming a bedroom community of Ballantyne. "When people are losing jobs, I understand they might not be happy with the way it went down. ... But I don't think we treated Continental any better or worse than anyone else."

Few new jobs created

The state incentives offered to Continental include tax rebates for creating new jobs. Continental has said it will move about 300 corporate positions from Charlotte to the Lancaster site. Those will be viewed as newly-created jobs in South Carolina and will be eligible for the credits, according to the S.C. Department of Commerce.

The former workers say moving jobs from Charlotte a few miles down the road doesn't help the unemployed in South Carolina and the company shouldn't be eligible for rebates. They claim most of the current employees will continue living in Charlotte and will commute to the new office, leaving few opportunities for South Carolina workers.

"What the company decides to do with the jobs is a question for the company. We certainly hope there are jobs for South Carolina workers," said Kara Borrie, a spokeswoman for the S.C. Department of Commerce.

Councilman Vaughn shares the former workers' concerns that no new jobs will be created for South Carolinians.

"I've said publicly from the beginning that I don't think this project brings a lot to Lancaster County as far as job creation," he said. "But it does transition property from residential to commercial."

That's not enough for the former workers.

"When your own government can't see morality, that's a shame," said Larry Little of Fort Mill, who retired after 32 years with Continental. "Who made out on this deal? Only a few people ... who are getting a tax break. And that's wrong."

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