No one can say that there’s never any good news in the newspaper.

Last week, the Memphis and Shelby County Industrial Development Board met for the last time.

For years, the IDB has handed out tax waivers to anyone who could fill out the paperwork.  The heaps of praise of the lawyer who has gouged more money out of the board members with his dependable threats of companies moving to Mississippi was testament to the board’s failure to balance the best interests of taxpayers as well as business.

We know that we shouldn’t be so hard on the IDB members.  After all, it’s not as if they had a real understanding of how regional economies work except for explanations offered by the people attending its meetings, people who had special interest in continuing Memphis and Shelby County’s overreliance on tax freezes.

No Witness for the Defense

There’s been no objective arbiter in these decisions about how to waive taxes.  It’s people with the vested interest – the clients, their lawyers, and economic development officials – who were providing the IDB with the “evidence” justifying the tax waivers, evidence which includes lots of anecdotes, fear tactics, and questionable impact statements.

There are suggestions that the IDB overpaid for the kinds of jobs, heavy on the warehousing and distribution industry, being created and the salaries being paid.  Last week, at its last meeting, it doled out tax freezes of $21.8 million for 259 jobs, or $84,256 for each new job.  Yes, we know that the PILOT to McKesson didn’t create any new jobs but it allegedly saved them under yet another loosening of tax freeze policies to give them to companies who just promised to keep the same number of jobs in our community.

By way of comparison, Toyota got $148,000 in incentives per job in 2007 for its $1.3 billion plant and 2,000 jobs in Tupelo, and in Franklin, Tennessee, Nissan got $151,000 per job for its North American headquarters and 1,300 jobs.

Hoping for an EDGE

But hope springs eternal.

We’re hoping that the members of EDGE, the new public umbrella economic development group that is replacing the IDB, will take a fresh look at tax freeze policies and procedures, bring a fresh perspective to these decisions, will bring more curiosity to get a full picture, and will insist on a more balanced economic plan that ultimately won’t measure success by how many payments-in-lieu-of-taxes (PILOTs) are approved but in how few.

That’s why the hiring of EDGE’s first executive director is so crucial Memphis and Shelby County.  It’s a valuable chance to inject some new thinking into our economic development planning and to shake up business as usual.

For 30 years, our government and economic development officials have said with conviction that we have no choice but to dole out tax freezes because of our unskilled workforce.  In the same period of time, China has managed to turn its entire economy upside down and reduce its poverty rate by extraordinary amounts.  If an entire country can be turned around, surely we’re up to the task for building a future built on quality rather than cheapness.

Dusting Off The Report

Little has changed since the IDB tax freeze policies were criticized by everyone from pro-business Forbes magazine to university researchers, and most of all, by city and county governments’ own consultants, URS Corporation and NexGen Advisors, who called for major overhaul of the program in its 97-page report issued December 1, 2005.  We should have known what was coming when it took more than a year for local government to get around to voting on reforms to the PILOT program.

Ultimately, the only outside assessment of the city and county policies on tax freezes – an assessment that recommended common sense and reasonable reform – was forgotten almost before it was officially submitted for consideration. Although some changes were approved, the full impact of the well-thought-out report was never realized, and campaigns to water down the changes began almost before the ink had dried on the government resolutions.

Forbes magazine held up our PILOT program as the poster child for tax incentives run amok: “Targeted tax cuts aimed at attracting particular employers are bad policy. For decades now targeted tax incentives have been a favorite elixir of state and local politicians in depressed communities. But targeted tax incentives don’t spur real growth. Quite the contrary…tax incentives are inevitably financed at the expense of established businesses. Today’s winner of a targeted tax break is tomorrow’s victim of a broad increase in business taxes.”

As for the city-county consultants, they recommended the “but for” test – a common sense idea that when a company asks for a tax freeze, it must be determined that “but for” the public incentive, the project would never materialize.

Rhetoric Over Reason

The consultants wrote: “The current matrix approach (the score sheet now being used to award tax freezes and set their terms) for awarding PILOTs should be abandoned and replaced by a ‘but for’ test or the true economic need of the project.”

This was what was always missing from the PILOT process. Instead of an emphasis on facts, there was an emphasis on rhetoric: “The company will move to Mississippi if it doesn’t get the PILOT” or “This company is looking at locations in Indianapolis right now,” or “This company wants a sign from government that Memphis values its presence.”

In truth, this strict “but for” test was straightforward and encouraged good stewardship of scarcer and scarcer tax dollars. The consultants define “but for” as a business investment that isn’t reasonably expected without the public tax freezes, and it can be proven by a “gap analysis, a competitive cost analysis for competing sites, or a combination of the two,” the report states.

“The establishment of a ‘but for’ test is the whole premise of any public investment or the need for it from a logical, moral and legislative standpoint,” the report said. “Most, if not all, business incentive programs across the country imply a ‘but for’ test in their intent and enabling legislation.”

Creating a Community of Success

In the end, the new EDGE board will have to develop an economic development plan that positions our community strongly for the brave new world that will exist after the recession.  It’s not about low-skill, low-wage jobs.

It’s about, as Professor John Eger said: “The effort to create a 21st century city is not so much about technology as it is about jobs, dollars and quality of life. In short, it is about organizing one’s community to reinvent itself for the new, knowledge-based economy and society; preparing its citizens to take ownership of their community; and educating the next generation of leaders and workers to meet these global challenges…At the heart of this effort is ultimately defining a ‘creative community.’”