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Questions persist after meeting on abatements

A public meeting on tax abatements Monday evening generated many more questions than answers.

About 50 people met in the City Council’s chambers to learn about local economic development practices and discuss ways to make sure taxpayer money used as business incentives is spent wisely.

The group included at least three elected officials, numerous local labor leaders and concerned citizens.

At issue: Do city and county officials do enough to make sure companies that receive tax abatements actually create the jobs they promise? And should temporary or minimum wage jobs receive as much abatement consideration as permanent, high-paying jobs?

Tom Lewandowski, who organized the meeting, is president of the Northeast Indiana Central Labor Council, AFL-CIO. His organization includes the Unemployed and Anxiously Employed Workers’ Initiative, which sponsored Monday’s event.

The initiative’s members include those who’ve lost jobs in plant closings.

“We think we can do better,” Lewandowski said of the current tax abatement process. “And based on the people we represent, we know we have to do better.”

Cheryl Hitzemann, a member of the workers’ initiative, has reviewed some local employers’ annual compliance filings, which are public record.

The goal is to find what’s working well so officials can do more of it, she said. But some of the self-reported information didn’t make sense and lacked consistency about the types of jobs created, she said.

Lewandowski is advocating for local officials to define various terms – such as “job” and “economic development.”

David Greene, who works in sales, had heard enough.

“When do we get to the point where we’ve done enough audits?” he asked. “Why do we need to do more research? We know it’s not working. Who do we talk to?”

Lewandowski, who has been raising the issue with elected officials for months, said there’s no easy answer.

At least that’s one thing everyone can agree on, including city council members Tom Smith, R-1st and Russ Jehl, R-2nd, who attended some of the meeting. County Council President Darren Vogt stayed until the end.

“I’ve heard a lot of information that concerns me greatly,” Smith said after leaving the meeting. “They’re asking fair questions about how we can get better reporting.”

Smith expressed concern, however, over protecting employers’ privacy. He’s not sure which questions need to be asked and answered in annual compliance filings. Submissions become public record, which would allow competitors access to the information, Smith said.

“These are questions I don’t have answers to,” he said.

Smith was surprised to learn that Lewandowski had not been invited to participate in tax abatement discussions held by a joint committee of city and county council members. Committee members are expected to report to the city council next week.

Smith, who suggested the committee’s creation, had asked that the labor leader be included.

Vogt, who sat on the committee, said Lewandowski and many others were invited by email to submit ideas in writing.

“He likes to point out questions but doesn’t offer any solutions,” Vogt said after the meeting.

Lewandowski responded afterward that he expected to participate in the meetings but was not invited.

During Monday’s meeting, the audience offered a few suggestions, including:

•Researching best practices for tax abatement compliance

•Asking college business students to tackle the problem

•Hiring an independent auditor to verify annual compliance filings

•Stopping all abatement awards until the system is overhauled.

Lewandowski invited everyone to take home and study lists of companies that have received local tax abatements.

He suggested that if anyone has a sibling or friend working in one of those employers, that person could provide Lewandowski’s group with a behind-the-scenes report on what’s really going on there. It’s a no-cost way of checking on whether companies are keeping job creation promises.

“The reality is,” he said, “we’re not going to find funding for tax abatement police.”

sslater@jg.net

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