At an August town hall meeting on the latest Google deal, Oregon Rep. John Huffman said he strongly disagreed with the fact that The Dalles and Wasco County directed how other agencies must spend the Google funds they received.
While Huffman, who lives in The Dalles, was speaking as a citizen then, and not a legislator, he said earlier this week that if one of those agencies approached him, he would be open to pursuing legislation in the 2017 session to address that concern.
He didn’t want to attempt what he knows would be a contested bill in the shorter 2016 legislative session, he said.
As the law now stands, cities and counties are sponsors of enterprise zones, and have complete discretion on how to spend the payments companies make in lieu of taxes.
In Morrow County, some $1.25 million is generated yearly from several companies that have settled in an enterprise zone there. Charla McLane is the county’s planning director and also heads the enterprise zone.
She said a six-person board of county, city and port officials, plus citizens, were able to identify four main areas of need — housing, workforce development, public safety and community improvement. But once they funded those areas, they left it up to the various entities on how they would spend the money.
Morrow County is similar to the enterprise zones in Wasco County in terms of being a rural enterprise zone, and for the large dollar amount available for distribution.
The second Google deal will pay $800,000 yearly, starting this fiscal year, and the newest, third, deal, will pay a minimum of $1 million once the new building is up and running.
At the August meeting, held to describe particulars of the third 15-year agreement worked out with Google, Huffman recounted that he said, “These taxing authorities give up their ability to tax when we make an enterprise zone deal, so with that in mind, I would like to see the elected officials in the city and county allow a little more leniency and leeway of these taxing authorities to spend the money the way they see fit.”
McLane said, “We didn’t want to put really tall or restrictive sideboards” on how money was spent. Particularly the money earmarked for community and public enhancement that went to the towns in Morrow County.
The enterprise zone board wanted each community to identify “what was important” in their towns.
McLane said on the housing issue, the enterprise zone board started talking about how it would address the fact that 70 percent of the workforce at the Port of Morrow commuted from elsewhere to work there.
But it realized that other economic development entities already existed to tackle that issue, and turned the cash over to them.
“With very little exception” the money was turned over without parameters, she said. “We didn’t tell them how to spend that money.”
“At the end of the day, it was the board that said these are our priority areas and it was the board that decided how much money would go to each priority area.
“But once the decision was made and the money went to those groups, the board has been hands off.”
Morrow County also receives considerable money from windmills and other energy producing entities, she said.
The county has decided how that money would be spent — mostly on capital projects.
Huffman said local taxing entities like the school district and fire district have their own elected boards that would understand the needs of their own entities.
Huffman can already predict who might line up for and against a bill he might propose.
The League of Oregon Cities and the Association of Oregon Counties could likely be against it, he said. But the Special Districts Association of Oregon, which represents entities like fire districts, and the Oregon School Boards Association may support it.
He said, “We’d have to size it up to see if the support outweighed the opposition before we moved forward.” Huffman said he’s “talked to the city and the county both, and they basically felt that they are protecting the public interest. Personally, I’m not sure how you get there. I don’t think I could get there if I were in their place, but I think they feel it’s incumbent on them as the two sponsors for the enterprise zone… to direct the proceeds from the deal that’s been negotiated.Again, that’s where I struggle.”
At an August city council meeting in The Dalles, the issue came up and several councilors voiced their support for determining how recipient districts spend the Google money given to them.
“I think the city needs to make sure taxing districts are in the same mindset as we are,” Councilor Taner Elliot said.
“I think the city should be able to weigh in on how they deal with the funding,” said Councilor Russ Brown.
Councilor Dan Spatz objected to it as “over stepping” by the city.
The school district has asked for public meetings on how the latest Google funds will be distributed. Mayor Steve Lawrence said earlier this week the plan is to meet individually with the other taxing entities involved, then meet with the school district.
Any talk of public meetings would be up for discussion, he said.
In Prineville, where Facebook is located, proceeds from an enterprise zone there are small, about $260,000 a year, and are split evenly between the city and county, said Prineville City Manager Steve Forrester.
He said the money is too small to be distributed, but it is expected to grow, and at that point, they intend to consider providing funding to other taxing entities.
They are already talking to the fire department, for example, to “ask them what their needs are” in light of the new buildings in the enterprise zone, he said.
Forrester also said data centers like Facebook have been very supportive of local schools, “and the schools have benefitted from that.