The salad was light and the tea was sweet, but conversation waded immediately into deeper waters: politics. That’s the way the League of Women Voters prefer it.
Today, the League enjoyed lunch at Dharma Blue and discussed the merits of EDATE, a tax-incentive issue appearing locally on the Jan. 31 ballot. Members had a general grasp on the subject, but wanted to nail it down.
“So, we decided we’d get the straight story,” said local League Co-President Paula Montgomery, as she introduced Escambia County Administrator Charles Oliver — “who goes by ‘Randy,’ I believe.”
Oliver passed out some informational pamphlets, then launched into EDATE 101.
“The purpose of it is to create partnerships with businesses,” he explained, “to keep and maintain jobs.”
When local voters go the polls during the upcoming GOP primary, they will be asked to consider EDATE, which gives new or expanding businesses a break on their property taxes. The loose acronym translates to Economic Development Ad Valorem Tax Exemption.
“You may see their red and white signs around,” Oliver said, referencing the referendum’s campaign.
In short, EDATE allows county officials to give new or expanding businesses a certain amount of relief when it comes to property taxes. Businesses could receive up to a 100 percent tax break, but the amount will correspond to how many jobs they bring to the area.
Businesses would only be eligible for an exemption if they are new to the area, or are expanding an existing business. Expanding businesses will only be eligible for the breaks on the expansions.Taxes on land, or associated with the local school district or utility authority, do not factor into the equation.
Oliver said that EDATE acts as an incentive for businesses looking to relocate.
“We’re competing not only in the southeast, but in today’s world, around the country and around the world,” the county administrator said.
When a business applies for an EDATE exemption, the request goes before the county. Officials use a point system to decided how much—if any—of a discount is merited. Basically, the more jobs, the more points, the more exemption.
But county officials aren’t interested in writing off ad valorem taxes for just any business. Prospective EDATE candidates will need to bring higher-end jobs to the table.
“The goal—anytime you do economic development— is to raise the quality of life,” Oliver said, later adding — “Why subsidize a fast-food joint?”
The quality of the company and the jobs could also come into play when officials determine how much of a break they’re willing to grant.
“If Microsoft moved its offices here, obviously it’s going to be scored quite differently than a call center,” Oliver explained.
League members were interested in learning exactly what type of businesses might be lured to the area. One woman said she didn’t want to see any more companies like International Paper —“or the pollution they create.”
“That’s definitely a consideration,” Oliver said, explaining that companies—and the higher-end workers they employ—usually focus on areas with a higher quality of life, which wouldn’t jive with worsening environmental factors. “No, were not talking about any steel smelting plants or anything like that.”
League members were also concerned that the county might be throwing out ad valorem dollars in a pro-business frenzy to attract jobs. Oliver maintained that the premise of EDATE is that the theoretical businesses it attracts would never have entered the scene without the proper incentive in place.
“It’s a revenue that one would argue that we’d never get,” Oliver said.