Tom Lewandowski isn’t worried by what people say about tax abatements – as long as they say keep talking about them.
The tax breaks – or phase-ins – are given to companies investing in land or equipment and creating or retaining local jobs. The goal is to win projects that could otherwise go to other communities, local economic development officials say.
But Lewandowski and other critics say the abatement process lacks defined terms that allow local officials and employers to know whether companies have lived up to their promises and should continue to receive multiyear tax savings.
That’s why the local labor leader has invited Morton Marcus, retired director of the Indiana Business Research Center at Indiana University, to tackle the issue during a meeting Wednesday in Fort Wayne.
Marcus is known for making colorful comments about the economy and other topics.
“Lord knows, no one can predict what Morton Marcus will say,” Lewandowski said. “And we’re not paying him to tell us what we want to hear. We’re bringing him here to hear what he has to say.”
The “we” Lewandowski referred to is the Unemployed and Anxiously Employed Workers’ Initiative of the Northeast Indiana Central Labor Council.
Lewandowski is president of the labor council. He dismissed a recent nine-month effort by a joint city-county committee to revise tax abatement policy as being “of little consequence” because it didn’t include public input.
The changes made the city and county policies nearly identical, a move intended to reduce confusion and competition for projects.
Officials also created a more extensive tax abatement points system designed to offer larger rewards when employers create high-paying jobs with generous benefits, which addresses one of Lewandowski’s concerns that low-paying jobs are given as much weight as high-paying ones in the evaluation process.
Marcus, reached at his Indianapolis home late last week, said communities’ approaches to economic development are somewhat limited by law.
He asked whether a new restaurant should be considered economic development – then attempted to answer his own question.
“For me, it depends on whether it’s the kind of restaurant you already have in town,” he said.
A new Burmese restaurant in a city that previously had none might be economic development because an element of economic development is increasing choices for businesses and consumers, Marcus said.
But, he added, whether that restaurant should be offered tax incentives is a separate matter.