Should York County offer tax breaks for business? Leaders say it’s time to talk

York County

Ahead of a potentially transformative corporate relocation to York County, along with tax and other financial incentives to make it happen, county leaders are looking at how and when they make offers to bring business here.

York County Council will meet in coming months to work out how the county offers financial packages to spur economic development. Councilwoman Christi Cox asked for the review.

“Some concerns that I’m hearing from constituents are, we don’t give tax breaks to our citizens,” she said. “We don’t give them a tax break at all. We don’t reduce their millage. We don’t cap their millage, and we can’t afford to give tax breaks to every business that is in our community.”

Financial incentives to bring business to an area are common. There is fee in lieu of tax, or FILOT, agreements. The state has Bailey Bill, freezing tax value for a time on redeveloping properties. Federal opportunity zones promote investment. In March, state lawmakers introduced new legislation allowing for tax and development credits in hopes of bringing the Carolina Panthers training site and headquarters to South Carolina.

At least one Rock Hill site has been in discussion for the possible Panthers site. At a recent groundbreaking for a Lancaster County plant expansion, Gov. Henry McMaster talked about work being done daily to bring not only a practice facility but also related medical facilities, commercial and retail development, possibly a convention center to South Carolina with the Panthers.

“There’s a long way to go from here to there,” McMaster said, “but we’re working on it.”

State commerce officials routinely work with businesses and the county on agreements before the announcement of new headquarters, expansions or other major investments. Council often votes on projects using code names or in executive session to work out legal issues before an announcement.

The only new business item on Council’s April 1 agenda was a fee agreement for Project Combat. A source familiar with the project confirmed it is not related to a Panthers move.

The NFL team never came up in public forum that night, including when Cox asked to schedule a discussion on the value and impact of incentives.

“I don’t think there’s a council member up here that would say a business is not welcome,” Cox said. “Every business is welcome here in York County — period. The question is, at what point and when do we extend tax breaks?”

She wants to look at speculative building projects, making sure investments promised to secure fee agreements are being realized. Cox said she wants to review warehouse and distribution projects that could bring low-wage jobs and cause infrastructure issues. She’d like to see agreements for businesses that pay a livable wage.

“I’d like for us to discuss it and make sure that the decisions we’re making here are looking out for our constituents and that we’re extending these incentives to businesses that should get them because they’re doing a good job,” Cox said.

Bringing jobs that don’t pay enough for workers to live in the community can create issues such as the need for subsidized housing, Cox said.

“Some folks call them corporate welfare,” she said. “I get this question from my constituents. Why are you doing this when the jobs that they are bringing in don’t pay a livable wage?”

Councilman Robert Winkler chairs the economic development committee that gets the first look at potential fee agreements before going before the full council.

“I’d like to see council member Cox’s concerns put on a future workshop for us as a whole council to address those issues,” Winkler said.

Chairman Michael Johnson said that workshop will happen “soon-ish.” Council has its annual budget and other issues that will take considerable review time.

“We’ll get it in the next few months,” Johnson said.

Other places like Greenville County, Cox said, do not approve every potential fee agreement.

“It isn’t always felt like, if you disapprove a FILOT that you are anti-business,” she said, “which is not the case at all.”

York County and council members can be pro-business, Cox said, and still be selective.

“With a 2.9% unemployment rate and with a county that has driven jobs and has been one of the primary counties driving jobs in this nation, we are in a very unique position to where we have a luxury here,” she said.

In seven meetings this year, Council had 14 agenda items involving fee agreements, private partnerships involving economic development, special source revenue credits and related discussion. Some involved public hearings, others were held in executive session. Some involved company names like Transaxle Manufacturing and Eclipse Automation. Others used project code names.

Those considerations aren’t uncommon in growing areas. Lancaster County has four public session and closed door agenda items on its April 8 agenda involving Project Dumpling, Project Watermelon and Project Tattoo.

What Cox doesn’t want is a situation where all businesses get tax breaks or a council member gets unfairly labeled for making decisions on which ones do.

“I think we need to be really careful when we make these decisions, and I don’t think that one particular council member should be labeled as anti-business because they challenge a discussion on that issue,” Cox said.

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